It's hard to put a positive spin on Dish's operating metrics from the first quarter. The only good news is that the company beat earnings-per-share expectations with an EPS number of $0.76, compared to analyst predictions of $0.69 for the period. Even so, the EPS number is still below where Dish was a year ago when it reported earnings of $0.86 per share.
And the news only gets worse from there.
Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH)'s revenue dropped to $3.63 billion, well below its expected revenue of $3.78 billion. And the company lost 143,000 pay-TV subscribers in the quarter, a number that includes any customer gains from Dish's low-cost, over-the-top Sling TV service. Dish doesn't break out the Sling TV numbers, but a research note from analyst firm MoffettNathanson LLC estimates the company added around 177,000 Sling TV subs, which puts its total satellite TV customer losses at around 320,000.
Why does that matter? Because satellite TV subscribers bring in a lot more money than Sling TV subs.
Dish points out that the cost of acquiring a Sling TV customer is also much less than the acquisition cost of a satellite TV customer, but that doesn't help with overall revenue. And despite a rise in average revenue per user last quarter, Dish's Q1 ARPU dropped to $86.55 from $87.94 a year ago. (See Dish in 2016: ARPU Up, Video Subs Down.)
The bottom line is that Dish's satellite TV business is declining rapidly, and that not only shines a light on how Sling TV is faring (estimates of Sling TV subs range from 1.3 million to 1.36 million), but also on Dish's plans for the expensive wireless spectrum it has collected over many years.
With the satellite TV business tanking, there's increasing pressure on Dish to make money from its wireless assets; assets that include the $6.21 billion worth of spectrum that Dish just purchased in the 600Mhz auction. (See T-Mobile, Dish & Comcast Big Winners in $19.8B 600MHz Auction.)
Dish announced in March that it will build out a narrowband Internet-of-Things network using its wireless spectrum by March of 2020. That plan is in accordance with a requirement by the FCC that Dish not squat on spectrum rights, but it's not necessarily Dish's first-choice strategy for wireless profitability. Dish has indicated that it might prefer to sell its spectrum assets rather than operate a new network, but if that's the case, the company appears to be running out of time to make a deal. (See Dish's 5G Plans Should Rouse Cablecos.)
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen addressed the issue of a sale on Dish's earnings call with investors. He reiterated a point he's made before that the company's focus is on building out the promised IoT network with or without a partnership or M&A deal.
However, Ergen also spoke at length about how he sees the wireless industry changing and why he thinks a deal still holds value.
"We think the world of wireless can be materially different than [it is today]," said Ergen. "It can be different because there's a paradigm shift in technology; the way you build your radio, the way you're going to propagate your network... the ability to slice your network in different slices, the ability to let other people share your network. All those things are possible in the 5G world." And he added that if Dish can find a partner or buyer that shares that vision, the company could get very excited about a potential deal.
That certainly sounds like Dish is still on the lookout for M&A riches. But if it wants to find them, it will have to make sure its sustaining satellite TV business doesn't disappear first.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading