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TV Maverick goes All-In to a new wireless bet

Charlie Bergen has long tried to sneak into the wireless business in the US. When his rivals had no choice, the billionaire behind them


John Leger, CEO of T-Mobile US Inc., called Mr Ergen at the end of May, after it became clear that T-Mobile's offer to accept


Mr. BERGEN was the company's most frank critic for the proposed $ 26 billion deal – a merger that will leave the United States with three giant mobile companies. But the Colorado diplomat also manages one of the few companies with air and know-how to create a new wireless provider to meet the Ministry of Justice's antitrust problems.

Two serious attempts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint over the past five years have already failed. His third attempt was already one year old

Mr. Legere, a fake performer known for the tweets who have fun with their competitors, was all over the phone. "Justice said we need a fourth bearer. We need to talk if you are interested, "recalls Mr. Ergen.

John Legerre, CEO of T-Mobile, left talks with Marcello Clare, chairman of Sprint and Chief Operating Officer of SoftBank, before the opening of March House Judicial Subcommittee, hearing in Washington, DC

Andrew Harrier / Bloomberg News
For years, Mr. Ergen had been angry with telecoms and federal regulators, spending more than $ 20 billion in wireless licenses, but never used them. Again and again, Mr. Ergen explored various deals, including buying Sprint alone, just to frustrate the other side. He was now the only buyer who could build a reliable fourth national mobile phone operator.

"By four, there is always someone who will be offended Russian," said Mr Ergen in an interview this week at his office south of Denver. "Someone will say that I do not have enough market share. I only have 9 million submarines and I want 10 million. This person will be more aggressive. The man who has 100 million, he will just hope to stick to them. "Whether Dish can become a huge force in the mature US mobile phone market will be a key test of the antitrust agreement announced Friday between the Ministry of Justice. and companies. The carefully crafted deal gives Dish 9 million of Sprint's prepaid customers – his Boost Mobile business, and then some – plus the right to buy licenses for more air that can cover the countryside. It will allow Dish to work in the existing T-Mobile network for seven years while Dish builds its own national service.

Shuffling and Dealing

Under a plan approved by the Ministry of Justice, T-Mobile and Sprint could close their long-running merger by providing Dish with their assets to build a competitive wireless network.

T-Mobile and Sprint currently use separate frequencies often requiring different cell towers

Dish hires new T-Mobile capacity, creating a new operator to serve Boost Mobile customers and giving it time to build your own network. seven years, Dish runs its own network using a range of its previous acquisitions and its own equipment installed in fewer towers.

T-Mobile and Sprint currently use separate frequencies, often requiring different cell towers

After seven years, Dish works a stand-alone network using a range of past acquisitions and own equipment installed in fewer towers.

Dish hires new T-Mobile capacity, creating a new operator to serve Boost Mobile customers and give him time to build their own network.

T-Mobile and Sprint currently use separate frequencies often requiring different cell towers

T-Mobile / Metro / Dish / Boost

Dish is renting capacity from the new T- Creating a new operator to serve Boost Mobile customers and giving it time to build their own network

After seven years, Dish runs its own network using a range of previous acquisitions and own equipment installed on fewer towers. T-Mobile and Sprint currently use separate frequencies often requiring different cell towers

T-Mobile / Metro / Dish / Boost

Decommissioned or upgraded

Dish rents capacity from the new T- creates a new operator to serve Boost Mobile customers and gives him time to build his own network.

Decommissioned or Upgraded

After seven years, Dish runs its own network using a range of past acquisitions and own equipment installed less towers.

A former professional poker player and blackjack who was banned from casinos in Las Vegas, Mr. Ergen co-founded Dish in 1980, after starting his career as an analyst at Frito Lay, where he calculates how much Doritos should fill a bag. He and his partners are betting on their savings, bringing together $ 60,000 for the sale of 10-foot satellite dishes from the Denver store. He said his gambling experience helped to improve his business insight – knowing how to "win with bad hands." More than once, Mr. Ergen compares his business plans with an Indiana Jones movie in which the hero barely escapes. an infinite string of lethal threats.

He switched to large-size vessels and took over cable TV monopolies by cutting prices. His service now has 12 million customers across the country, and his Dish control suite is worth about $ 9 billion. (He is also chairman and the largest shareholder in a nursing company


, who manages satellites.)

The 66-year-old player plays by his own rules. He has led managers to share hotel rooms on trips to the company and has made a market survey with what he calls a Waffle House Survey by visiting shopping malls across the country and asking customers how they used their phones and watched TV.

– he still moves at the Giles in Englewood, Colorado, headquarters with lunch in a brown paper bag – is not always obvious these days. The billionaire often flew in a private plane and stopped making employees share hotel rooms on business trips, according to people familiar with the company.

Charlie Berg, left, co-founder of Dish Network with Jim DeRranco, right.


Brian Breyer / Denver Post / Getty Images

n. A bachelor, whose main satellite TV service loses customers, admits he's starting to play behind. But he claims to give him an advantage. "Their heritage is a mixture. Their networks are scratched, "said Mr. Ergen, pointing to the green dress shirt. "We will be solid color."

The new Dish Network will be weaker than traditional operators.

Verizon Communications

there are nearly 120 million customers on mobile phones.

AT & T

and the expanded T-Mobile will have more than 90 million. They are among the largest advertisers in the country. They keep their subscribers offering unlimited data and bundled free subscriptions for services such as HBO and Netflix. All three are now running faster 5G services.

"How is a company without a record, with no wireless customers and untapped spectrum a more viable competitor?" Said Matt Wood, chief adviser to the free press group, who publicly opposed the deal with T-Mobile and Sprint [19659004] AT & T, Verizon and T-Mobile have built national networks for decades as they have acquired competitors or new licenses for the air. Now T-Mobile will spend years integrating Sprint's network and its customers. Existing companies updated the equipment hanging on cell towers and the software behind their services as they moved from 3G connections to faster 4G technology and now 5G.

Dish plans to build on T-Mobile while building a brand new, 5G-only network that can expand quickly and work differently. It also means that Dish should be able to quickly do it and work differently. For example, Mr. Ergen said, Dish will be able to offer on-demand pricing, such as charging less in the middle of the night. He also plans to focus on business, such as automakers, looking for 5G links.

"We'll get to somewhere after three years, which will take the other 10 years," he said.

Field Services Specialist The network is installing a satellite TV system at a Denver residence.


Matthew Staver / Bloomberg News
The agreement to use the stronger T-Mobile network will allow Dish to attract customers beyond the cities where Sprint most often offered its Boost service, he said. It also allows Dish to build its own network first in urban areas with many customers and to use the T-Mobile network to reach rural areas that have fewer customers.

Dish will have to add towers to all these less populated and less profitable areas of the deal he has made with the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department. According to Argen, it would cost about 10 billion dollars. But he will be able to compete for customers and generate money from his nascent cellular business before he does.

Mr. Ergen also claims that wireless pricing is disturbed. He argues that American carriers have many customers who pay for unlimited data plans they do not need, just as cable companies have forced subscribers to pay for large bundles of TV channels.

"It's a joke again for us," said Mr. Ergen. In the wireless network, he sees the opportunity for Dish to attract customers who use less data at lower monthly rates and those who are heavy data users with plans that do not slow down their connections.

AT & T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson said this week that he is not concerned about the prospect of Dish jumping in the wireless market. "Our strategy is pretty well baked," he told analysts Wednesday. "The strategy is sustainable because it is related to the changes in the structure of the industry."

Mr. A bachelor often acts as an intruder. In 2012, Dish introduced a DVR, allowing users to easily miss advertisements, which provokes a legal challenge from broadcasters.

He often faces programming fees with channel owners, causing interruptions in Dish service. The company said on Friday it had stopped shipping 22 regional sports networks owned by

Walt Disney

Dish has also disappeared without HBO since November, missing the last season of "Game of Thrones". Mr. Ergen said HBO's offer was inaccessible, calling it "payback" for the 2018 opposition to AT & T's purchase. of Time Warner. An HBO spokeswoman said the terms offered by Dish are in line with those for major distributors.

Dish launches one of the first live streaming services, Sling TV, in early 2015. With a small bundle of channels and a lower price this has made it easy for millions of people to cut their bill for television – even a lot of Dish satellite customers . But with the cellular service he has excited federal authorities and business partners with what some call promises broken. Critics argue that Mr Erggen simply intercepted the licenses issued by the government while waiting for a partner in deep pockets to buy it. In 2015, he angered FCC employees when he won a large portion of the wireless licenses of the government auction; His offer benefits from a $ 3.3 billion rebate designed to bring smaller players into the wireless industry. The FCC later rejected the discount, a decision that was challenged. Last year, FCC officials wrote a letter threatening to return some Dish licenses if they fail to launch a cellular service by March 2020

Miami T-Mobile.


Joe Red / Getty Images

n. Bachelor bristled with the idea that he was squatting on valuable air. He said he just bid from Japan's SoftBank Group Corp. in 2013 when he tried to buy Sprint. He was waiting for a catalyst to allow him to compete with well-established players. Developing new 5G networks is just a technological change that makes it possible.

"Accumulation is actually positive for our shareholders and is a positive strategic move because you have to build up a spectrum to compete with these guys," I said. "It made no sense to build a 4G network and tear everything up next year."

Until early 2019, Dish still has no wireless clients to suppress the government's concerns. The forecast also darkens for T-Mobile and Sprint. Their merger effort was hampered in April when lawyers at the Ministry of Justice told companies that the deal would hardly gain their approval as it was structured.

The justice ministry has forced companies to throw enough of their businesses to create a new fourth mobile operator who can slip into the gap left by Sprint, who has thrown out customers and struggled to make a profit.

met with representatives of potential partners, including Aljet USA Inc.,

Charter communications



, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The dish appeared as an early favorite.

Share Your Thoughts

Can Dish Proceed against Larger Wireless Players? Join the conversation below . Ergen said his existing airtime licenses have made the ground for building a new mobile operator that is more reliable. He said he had reached a broad deal with Mr. Legere and Sprint's chairman Marcello Clare for just four weeks of discussions in June.

But the discussions continued for another three weeks, while the Justice Department pushed the partners to a merger for better conditions. Government lawyers insist that the deal does not include restrictions on Dish's ability to sell assets other than pure competitors or to find a partner with deep pockets after the deal.

The Justice Ministry's anti-trust, Mankan Delharim, was under the government's official breakdown. Head of Trump's administration, FCC Ajit Pai, has already approved the T-Mobile and Sprint deal, while a consortium of Democratic Prosecutors-General has filed a lawsuit to block it, saying it would harm consumers.

The Justice Ministry wanted to make sure that the final settlement would be brought to court if the Member States questioned it. The companies agreed to wait for the federal court to complete the deal later this year.

n. Ergen will have to pay $ 1.4bn for Sprint's customers and $ 3.6bn for three years for additional airfares. T-Mobile will receive the majority of Sprint's customers and air, and also has the right to buy some Dish Spectrum. The owner of Sprint SoftBank receives cash after failing to disrupt the US mobile services market. The Ministry of Justice will retain its fourth competitor.

"I think that after three years this deal will look better than this week," said Mr. Ergen. "They will have real competition."

Write to Drew Fitzgerald at andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com

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