Pay-TV services are pairing off with telecom companies, leaving the No. 2 satellite service in the U.S. looking for love. The options are quickly thinning.
FORTUNE — As pay-TV services work to pair off — AT&T T has eyes for DirecTV DTV ; Comcast CMCSA seeks to merge with Time Warner Cable TWC — one major player could be left without a partner. Dish Networks DISH , the nation’s second-largest satellite service after DirecTV, had tried to acquire Sprint S last year. But the bid failed. In the end, it was the Japanese telecom company Softbank that acquired a controlling stake in the third-largest American mobile carrier, leaving Dish to look elsewhere.
Immediately following the announcement of the AT&T-DirecTV deal, there was speculation that perhaps Verizon VZ , the nation’s largest mobile carrier, would find common ground with Dish. But Verizon’s chief executive, Lowell McAdam, quickly shot down rumors that the carrier was in potential merger talks with Dish.
“I know there are reports out there that we are talking to Dish. I can tell you now, that is someone’s fantasy. There were not, and there are not, discussions going on with Dish,” McAdam told investors at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference. He added, “I don’t think owning a satellite company is something I’m interested in at this point.”
Although this suggests that a merger with Verizon isn’t in the cards, there has been renewed speculation that Dish could align itself with the remaining major mobile carrier in the U.S.: T-Mobile TMUS , the subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom that merged with MetroPCS two years ago. But there are rumors that a Softbank-led Sprint may acquire T-Mobile, creating a situation in which Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son again plays spoiler to Dish’s plans.
Dish co-founder and CEO Charlie Ergen hasn’t been shy in saying that the company would be interested in potential partnerships, even as regulators circle.
“To what degree of scrutiny a merger faces is going to be something of an ongoing debate,” said Chris Silva, research director for mobile and client computing at the market research firm Gartner. “There are so many factors now including the FCC’s net neutrality to the Aereo case that it is hard to know how any of this could play out.”
Dish may be desirable to a carrier such as T-Mobile as it could provide a non-traditional partnership.
“It could provide a small opportunity for those rural customers that can’t get broadband,” Silva said. “The prize becomes the extension that is that last mile of Internet access in rural areas. That’s something that might not be of interest for Verizon, but could be for T-Mobile as it looks to remain in the mind of consumers.”
The coupling of the pay-TV services is occurring for various reasons. Time Warner Cable and Comcast were never competitors because their respective markets did not overlap; that merger would create a nearly nationwide cable TV provider. AT&T’s interest in DirecTV is for very different reasons.
“What the merger will allow DirecTV and AT&T to do is to leverage the entities as one entity when negotiating content providers for retransmission and licensing fees,” said Andrea Marder, director of media planning and buying at Media Associates. “The deal goes beyond the content component. Although there will most likely not be any immediate changes, down the road it will allow DirecTV subscribers for the first time to be able to purchase a bundled multiple play package. The deal will also provide DirecTV the retail distribution of the AT&T outlets that it does not currently have.”
That could give DirecTV a significant boost, Marder said, and it “is initially estimated to grow their subscriber base by at least 5 to 10%. It will be perceived by current subscribers as an added value and by prospects as an enticement to sign up for a subscription.”
Any partnership with Dish could be motivated by the company’s wireless spectrum holdings. In March, Dish won the bidding for wireless broadband in all 176 U.S. markets auctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. The $1.56 billion bid leaves the company well-positioned to lease or sell the spectrum, partner with a wireless carrier, or even launch its own nationwide wireless network.
“Anyone with spectrum has some scarcity value,” said Andrew D. Lipman, a Washington-based partner at the law firm Bingham McCutchen. “They have the H Block of spectrum, which is paired five by five blocks of spectrum.” (Its spectrum runs from 1,915 MHz to 1,920 MHz for uplinks and from 1,955 MHz to 2,000 MHz for the downlink; Dish also controls the 40 MHz spectrum adjacent to the portion of the H Bock known as AWS-4.)
“Dish has the option of using AWS-4 as either uplink or downlink spectrum,” Lipman added. “Downlink is generally generally more valuable, but all this spectrum is value. There may be some auctions in the future but this is pretty much it, so it gives Dish an attractive asset. The old joke in Washington is that you can’t be too rich, too thin, or have too much spectrum.”
Which is one reason why AT&T wants DirecTV. As of November of last year, the service has 19 million subscribers compared to Dish’s 14 million.
“The merger with AT&T is a huge benefit for DirecTV granting them the ability to align viewing on satellite, wireless, and across multiple fiber optic streams,” Marder said. “This now opens the door to advance technology for simultaneous advertising experiences across multiple screens.”
DirecTV’s subscriber base is demographically different than Dish’s, Marder added.
“Although they both provide TV programming via satellite, DirecTV viewers tend to be more upscale,” she said, “with multiple premium additions to their service.”
And the possibility of Dish launching its own nationwide network? Unlikely, but not quite as far-fetched as it appears. In April, it was revealed that Dish had partnered with Artemis, a startup working pCell technology, which it claims could be faster than today’s 4G LTE networks.
“The one option that is least likely is the idea that Dish could build its own wireless network,” said Jeffrey Silva, independent telcom-media consultant. “You need scale to do anything in the U.S. market to play in this game right now. The scale that Dish has is in the pay-TV business where subscriber base has been sputtering at best. There is so much competition in this space.”
Which means Dish needs a partner and fast, Silva said.
“Charlie Ergen is a smart guy, and he’s a professional card player, but he has to know he only has so many cards to play,” Silva said. “He has fewer options today than even a year ago. Spectrum keeps him in the game but only for so long. It is one thing to have it, but quite honestly they need a partner, and it isn’t for a game of cards.”