Dish Wireless is stuck with $21 billion in debt and an obligation to spend even more to build out its 5G network. USCellluar, which is dealing with its own problems, may represent a way out.
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen appeared open to the idea of buying parts of USCellular, noting on an investor call on Wednesday that
under most scenarios that’s an opportunity and a positive for where we’re trying to go.” Telephone & Data Systems, the parent of US Cellular, said a week ago that it was “exploring strategic alternatives,” which is business-speak for shopping the business around.
USCellular is the last major regional wireless service provider with its own network, but the consolidation to three national players — Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T – has steadily squeezed the smaller company. Without the reach or customer base of these larger players, USCellular has struggled to compete or kept pace with network upgrades.
Which is why it makes sense — at least on paper — for Dish to buy USCellular. Dish was the essentially the government’s plan to create a fourth national player once T-Mobile and Sprint merged. US Cellular’s assets could fill the gaps in Dish’s coverage and help it reach its next government-mandated deadline in 2025. Together, they could better compete and become that legitimate fourth option for consumers.
That’s not to say it would be an easy solution. Ergen noted there would likely be come regulatory limits on how much Dish could buy. And the two companies would likely take months — if not years — figuring out how to integrate the different networks. US Cellular, like most carriers, has a network that incorporates elements of 5G with older tech. Dish has proudly touted its 5G-only network, and utilizes network-sharing agreements with T-Mobile and AT&T to augment its coverage.
There’s also the question of how seriously Dish wants to push a wireless service. The company has had its own 5G service — called Project Genesis — up for more than a year, but barely anyone has heard of it. The Boost Mobile service it received from the Sprint deal continues to lose customer. On Wednesday, it reported losing 188,000 customers in the second quarter, bringing its total base to 7.7 million.
A spokesperson for Dish wasn’t available for comment, and USCellular declined to comment.