Charlie Ergen has been a busy, busy man in the past year. The longtime satellite television mogul turned satellite telecom entrepreneur has gone on an acquisition binge that has positioned him as a leader not only in satellite-based North American broadband services but possibly also in next-generation terrestrial wireless services.
Ever the opportunist, Ergen, through his EchoStar and Dish Network properties, flirted early in 2011 with taking over a pair of bankrupt companies planning so-called hybrid networks that would combine satellites and terrestrial assets to create U.S. nationwide mobile broadband services in the S-band portion of the radio spectrum. TerreStar Networks and DBSD had both managed to launch large S-band satellites but struggled to raise the financing necessary to deploy the multibillion-dollar networks of ground-based signal repeaters needed to make their respective systems work. Their experience has been similar to that of, which is attempting to deploy a hybrid network but in L-band and also has one large satellite on orbit.
The speculation was that Ergen ultimately intended to merge the 20 megahertz blocks of S-band spectrum allocated to TerreStar and DBSD to create a compelling case for investors who were undecided on which of the proposed hybrid networks to place their bets on. Such a move would make it more difficult for LightSquared, which hopes to attract some of the same investors, to finance its system.
But in a move that caught many by surprise, Ergen in February acquired satellite broadband service and equipment provider Hughes Network Systems, which has one large satellite on orbit and one on order to meet growing demand for its Ka-band service. Following disclosure of that $2 billion deal, Ergen declared that he was no longer interested in an outright purchase of TerreStar, in which he already had a major stake. He remained mum on his plans for DBSD.
Less than three months later, however, Ergen divulged his plan with action, acquiring DBSD for $1.4 billion. But in a conference call with investors, Ergen, who also picked up the bankrupt Blockbuster video rental chain, still sought to quell speculation about his intent to create an S-band empire; he went as far as to suggest EchoStar might seek to cash in its shares of TerreStar.
In the meantime, mounting questions about the potential for LightSquared’s proposed L-band network to pose unacceptable interference to certain GPS applications raised new doubts about its future viability. LightSquared has since offered to dramatically modify its network, but the GPS user community has not been mollified. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to review the matter.
Ergen reversed course again on TerreStar in June, agreeing to acquire that company. Then on Aug. 22, he asked the FCC’s blessing to deploy a broadband network combining the assets of DBSD and TerreStar — just as many thought was his plan all along. Whether Ergen was merely trying to throw the hounds off the scent in some of his earlier statements is unclear.
Also unclear is how or even whether Ergen’s other assets — Hughes, Blockbuster, EchoStar and Dish Network — fit into some larger grand strategy. Ergen has seen his share of investments gone sour, but has never failed to keep the satellite world guessing. In the past year he has set a new satellite industry standard for maneuvering and intrigue, and he might not be done yet.