Sprint’s tough choice: Dish might be a more attractive suitor than Softbank

Dish Network’s(s dish) bid for Sprint(s s) presents Dan Hesse and Co. with an interesting choice. Analysts point out that Softbank has more than enough money to counter Dish’s $25.5 billion bid, but money aside Dish would make a much better strategic fit for Sprint.

Softbank offers much-needed investment to the still struggling No. 3 U.S. wireless operator. But Dish doesn’t just bring cash; it’s got 4G spectrum and a huge pay TV network to boot. Informa Telecoms & Media Principal Analyst Mike Roberts lays out all of the advantages of a Sprint-Dish marriage:

“First and most importantly, Dish could combine its 2GHz LTE spectrum with the LTE spectrum of Sprint and Clearwire to build one of the strongest LTE spectrum portfolios in US, which would be the foundation for a powerful new competitor in the US telecoms market. Second, using Sprint’s newly-modernized mobile network would give Dish a cost-effective way to deploy LTE in its 2GHz spectrum and meet the FCC’s rollout requirements. Third, if the deal goes ahead, Dish and Sprint could quickly offer TV, broadband and mobile bundles to compete more effectively with larger integrated telecoms players such as Verizon and AT&T.”(s vz)(s vod)(s t)

In particular, Dish’s spectrum would give Sprint the immediate room it needs to grow its LTE capacity. Sprint’s current LTE network is bit undersized compared to high-capacity 4G networks its competitors are rolling out. While Sprint is planning to buy the remaining stake in Clearwire(s clwr) — which would give it Clearwire’s vast 2.5 GHz holdings — Clearwire is using a different type of LTE technology that could make getting the right consumer devices more difficult. Becoming part of Dish would give it the right kind of licenses to complement Sprint’s current network.

Also, Sprint taking over Clearwire isn’t a given. Several other companies have expressed interest in the 4G operator and its spectrum, and last week Clearwire revealed it just got a new offer from an unnamed entity to acquire its licenses in big cities for between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. The Wall Street Journal pegged that unnamed company as Verizon Wireless.

Master plan chess Grand Master VugarGiven all of the crazy variables in this complex game of spectrum chess, it seems like a Sprint and Dish would form a good match, but the companies haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.

There was once talk of a partnership between the two, using Sprint’s new networks to host Dish’s LTE service. But those talks fizzled, and Sprint and Dish wound up becoming big adversaries, fighting over Clearwire’s future and squabbling about interference issues in their spectrum neighborhood.

Copious amounts of money certainly can heal old wounds, but there’s a question of whether Dish has enough money. Despite Dish’s big war chest, it would still need to go $9 billion further into debt to finance its proposed deal, Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher King said in a research note. Dish may have just set off a bidding war, but it might not have the money to see it through. According to King:

“We believe that DISH is more strategically desperate for Sprint than is SoftBank; however, SoftBank certainly has deeper pockets. … As such, we believe SoftBank is in a better position, financially speaking, to match DISH’s offer – or raise the offer further – should it choose to do so. It appears to us that Sprint is in a solid position from a negotiating standpoint.”

If the money’s right, Sprint may not care about any of the strategic advantages of a Dish deal. As with all carriers, Sprint’s foremost concern is spectrum and Sprint may be in a position to acquire better licenses with Softbank’s cash.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice advised the Federal Communications Commission to set rules for its forthcoming TV airwaves auction favoring smaller operators like Sprint and T-Mobile over dominant carriers AT&T and Verizon. If FCC does give Sprint an advantage in that auction, it could walk away with some very attractive 600 MHz airwaves without breaking the bank.

Chess photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Elnur