There's a new twist in the ongoing Sprint/T-Mobile soap opera, and it reportedly hinges on concerns that Dish Network will ink some kind of transaction with Sprint and T-Mobile only to be subsequently acquired by a cable company.
According to a number of reports citing CNBC, T-Mobile and its parent company Deutsche Telekom are concerned that if they agree to some kind of transaction with Dish Network, a cable company like Comcast or Charter will then acquire Dish and thereby gain access to Dish's MVNO deal with T-Mobile.
According to one Wall Street analyst via email, those concerns are valid: "Clearly the situation remains very fluid -- but cable being the man behind the Dish black curtain may not be overly surprising after all. We have long thought that Comcast and Charter could move away from the MVNO it has in place with Verizon. While Verizon's fixed wireless push for 5G is still very nascent, if it does have success, one has to wonder why cable would continue to partner with a carrier which is actively trying to 'uncable' the cable providers' broadband pipe," wrote the analysts at Wells Fargo in a note to investors this morning.
To be clear, there's little indication that Spint and T-Mobile will successfully consummate their merger, given the obstacles they face, much less whether Dish ends up playing some kind of role in the merger. Further, there's no guarantee that a cable company would want to acquire Dish if it does gain MVNO access into T-Mobile's network. Nonetheless, T-Mobile and parent DT may well want to proactively avoid that situation should it come up in the future.
T-Mobile and Sprint, of course, are struggling to obtain regulatory approval for their proposed $26 billion merger. Already the transaction has been delayed beyond the companies' initial closure target of June. Although the chairman of the FCC has signed off on the transaction, reports indicate the Department of Justice (DoJ) won't agree to support the proposed merger unless the companies find a way to prevent the US wireless industry from shrinking from four to three nationwide wireless providers. Both the FCC and the DoJ must agree to the merger for it to actually happen.
Enter Dish: The satellite TV provider has reportedly entered 11th hour negotiations with the DoJ and T-Mobile to potentially acquire some of T-Mobile's customers and spectrum, and potentially to obtain wholesale access to T-Mobile's network in order to operate as an MVNO while it constructs its own 5G network. Such a deal could satisfy the DoJ's demands for four nationwide wireless providers.
However, it's that Dish/T-Mobile MVNO deal that appears to be the sticking point -- T-Mobile is worried that a cable company might acquire Dish and thereby gain too much access to its network. MVNOs essentially piggyback on existing wireless networks via wholesale access, providing services like billing and authentication while avoiding the expense of physically maintaining a wireless network.
Finally, according to CNBC, the clock is ticking: If T-Mobile and Dish are unable to reach an agreement this week, DoJ officials are reportedly prepared to move against the transaction. If that happens the DoJ will have company: Already the attorneys general from roughly a dozen US states have filed suit against the transaction, arguing it will harm the competitive landscape.