But that’s not the story. The story is about a company holding assets like bananas rotting on a wharf, and the price investors are paying for that arrogance. DISH has been hoarding wireless spectrum, seemingly refusing a profit until small investors tire of waiting.
DISH Stock and the Spectrum
DISH owns what analysts call $30.2 billion worth of unused frequency spectrum, for which it paid $20 billion earlier this decade, including 100 MHz of “Band 66” spectrum for Advanced Wireless Services (AWS).
But DISH itself has a market cap of just $14.8 billion, because it’s not using that spectrum. One block of 700 MHz spectrum, bought in 2008, could be lost by March 2020 unless it provides services on it to 70% of the service area.
T-Mobile US (NASDAQ:TMUS) wants this spectrum taken away from DISH, saying it has no plans to use it. DISH, in turn, is fighting T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint (NYSE:S), which would give T-Mobile the spectrum it needs to build out 5G and ignore DISH’s holdings.
DISH chairman Charles Ergen is worth $9.8 billion. Why does he continue to sit on his spectrum as though expecting it to hatch? He claims he wants to spend $10 billion on a wireless network to support internet-connected devices but has only committed $1 billion to the build, just enough to maintain control of the assets.
Thus, the value of DISH is now half the value of its spectrum. Investors bid the shares up as DISH was buying its spectrum, through the first half of 2017, and shares were priced at $66 as recently as July 10, 2017. They opened today at less than half that, right around $30 per share.
Ergen, who officially stepped down as DISH CEO for the second time last year, has been buying DISH stock in the open market while it has been falling and is listed as DISH’s 16th largest shareholder. But he controls unlisted DISH shares with 10 times the voting power of other shares, giving him majority control of the company.
While DISH calls its network buildout “Plan A,” the company also admits it has a “Plan B,” which is to sell the spectrum.
In addition to being desired by T-Mobile, other companies like Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) or even Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL) could use DISH’s spectrum to quickly build a powerful wireless network, one fully capable of competing with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ).
Plan B is smelling pretty good.
The Bottom Line on DISH Stock
By almost any measure, DISH stock is undervalued, selling at less than five times earnings, with a market cap barely higher than its revenue.
DISH generates about $2.8 billion in operating cash flow each year and had $1.5 billion in cash and notes at the end of June. It’s expected to earn 67 cents per share, about $150 million, on revenues of $3.39 billion when it reports September quarter earnings November 15.
You can speculate that DISH is undervalued based on its current business, or you can speculate that DISH is undervalued based on its spectrum holdings. It’s a highly speculative stock, but Charles Ergen is not known to be an idiot. He’s up to something.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in T.