Dish Network is sitting pretty right now.
The demise of AT&T's $39 billion deal to acquire T-Mobile leaves AT&T in a vulnerable position, that of a company in need of wireless spectrum but with few sources from whom to acquire it.
Verizon Wireless has only exacerbated the dilemma with its own move to acquire spectrum held by the cable providers, which shores up its own position. The broadcasters, meanwhile, have been sitting on a stash of spectrum and have been fighting attempts by the Federal Communications Commission to repurpose it for the wireless industry.
AT&T may be licking its wounds now, but it would be unwise to count the company out of the game. With a looming spectrum crunch, AT&T will want to act aggressively. So here's where it should look.
Dish in play
If AT&T is eager to continue the wheeling and dealing, its first call should go to Dish Network. The satellite-television company isn't a direct competitor, is sitting on a swath of compatible spectrum, and has been quietly amassing even more spectrum over the last few months.
Dish, alongside AT&T and a number of other companies, was one of several winners of the 700-megahertz spectrum auction--spectrum with the same frequency of that AT&T is using to build out its 4G LTE network.
Dish initially had plans to launch a mobile video service to complement its satellite-TV business, but has been relatively quiet. More recently, Dish unveiled plans to build a 4G LTE-Advanced network, which falls in line with AT&T's own future plans. Their respective spectrum positions would fit like a glove.
In addition, Dish has been hoarding spectrum on the cheap by acquiring a number of businesses. Earlier this year, Dish was able to scoop up Terrestar and DBSD out of bankruptcy, allowing the company to get a hold of spectrum on the cheap. The company has asked the Federal Communications Commission to allow it to combine the two licenses to create a network, which would combine both ground infrastructure and satellites, similar to LightSquared's proposed 4G LTE network.
Most importantly, it wouldn't run into the same anticompetitive hurdles that tripped up AT&T and T-Mobile. Dish is focused on satellite television, and it's not even the strongest player (rival DirecTV is the larger of the two). While AT&T offers television service through its U-Verse offering, it isn't a nationwide service, and isn't as core to the company as wireless service.
In the past, Dish has long been a rumored acquisition target for AT&T, which had been looking for a way to get into the television business on a national scale.
Still, not everyone is convinced Dish is a solution. Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said AT&T attempting to buy Dish may provoke another mud fight with the FCC and Justice Department.
Dish itself may not be interested in a deal with AT&T. The company's CEO, Joseph Clayton, said recently that he would be keen on combining his spectrum position with T-Mobile to create a stronger competitor to AT&T and Verizon.
A Dish representative wasn't immediately available for comment.
If the spectrum shortage is a real issue, this is something AT&T has to consider seriously.
Clearwire still looking for buyers
While Clearwire has shored up its finances with a recent private equity offering and deal with Sprint Nextel, the money-losing business could still use a bit more financial security.
Clearwire has said one of its options for raising money would be the sale of unused spectrum. All of a sudden, it may have a new potential customer in AT&T.
It's unclear, however, whether such a deal would work. AT&T and Clearwire have incompatible spectrum, requiring Clearwire to build out a network using a slightly different standard called TD-LTE. It's not an insurmountable hurdle; Sprint and Clearwire are working on ways for devices to hop back and forth between LTE and TD-LTE.
Going to Clearwire would mean having to deal with its largest shareholder, Sprint, which was instrumental in drumming up support against the AT&T and T-Mobile deal. That may be too much for the burned company to handle.
Wait for the FCC
AT&T, of course, could be feeling a little too gun-shy to pull the trigger on another deal so quickly, particularly after taking a charge of $4 billion to cover the breakup fee to T-Mobile. It could just wait for the FCC to make spectrum available.
In a statement, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson urged the government to move quicker.
"First, in the near term, (lawmakers) should allow the free markets to work so that additional spectrum is available to meet the immediate needs of the U.S. wireless industry," he said. "Second, policymakers should enact legislation to meet our nation's longer-term spectrum needs."
In addition, he sought the quick approval of the company's acquisition of Qualcomm's spectrum, which was put on hold amid the review of AT&T and T-Mobile.
Beyond the T-Mobile deal, AT&T wasn't quiet this year, having struck 18 smaller deals to get other bits of spectrum.
Even if no deals are made, the company is expected to up the rhetoric and pressure on regulators to free up additional spectrum.
Because the one thing AT&T isn't going to do is sit still.