Ergen’s wireless network plans dim amid coronavirus pandemic

Charlie Ergen’s plans to build the nation’s fourth wireless network by 2023 are being thrown into doubt due to the coronavirus.

Ergen, the billionaire chairman of satellite-TV company Dish Network, needs to raise about $10 billion to build a 5G network that covers 70 percent of the US population by June 2023, fulfilling his part of a regulatory agreement that allowed Sprint to be acquired by T-Mobile on April 1.

But with the coronavirus wreaking havoc on the economy and drying up lending, Wall Street is predicting Ergen will fall behind — fast.

“I think whatever rosy projections Charlie had are now very questionable,” said a source who expected to be part Dish’s lending group. “There is no financing to build a telecom network.”

Oddly, Ergen predicted just such a scenario in December when he testified to Dish’s ability to replace Sprint. In order to prove he was fit for the job, the 67-year-old media mogul showed off letters from three banks —Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley — saying they would gladly fund his expensive network construction.

“Where the markets are today — if we don’t have another 9-11, God forbid — the banks are confident,” Ergen told the packed courtroom.

That testimony helped convince Manhattan federal judge Victor Marrero to approve T-Mobile’s $26 billion acquisition of Sprint, despite calls by a group of attorneys general, including Letitia James of New York, to block the deal, which they said would reduce competition and increase prices for consumers.

The AGs also argued that Ergen would not be a strong candidate to replace Sprint because he has been promising to build a new wireless carrier for years with little to show for it.

The latest signs of a delay has opponents of the T-Mobile purchase concerned. “The risk that Dish will build the network falls on consumers,” said Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge. “The timeline is going to get pushed back.”

If Dish fails to meet it 2023 deadline, it could face $2 billion in fines and be ordered to return $12 billion in unused government spectrum its been sitting on, according to court documents.

But as Goldman Sachs noted in a recent research note, Ergen could also lean on a provision of his Department of Justice consent decree allowing for delays due to “an act of God.” Dish and the banks declined to comment.

The materials Ergen revealed in court are known in industry parlance as “highly confident” letters that fall short of actual lending commitments. As Ergen testified, it would have been foolish to borrow the money needed to build the network without knowing if the judge would block the deal.

But T-Mobile went ahead and secured conditional financing commitments for its 5G roll-out quickly enough to push ahead with its plans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, T-Mobile has been so careful to not lose its financing that it even closed on its acquisition ahead of the deal being approved from the California Public Utilities Commission.

In a March 31 letter to the CPUC, T-Mobile Chief Operating Officer Michael Sievert said the company “could not take the risk of waiting any longer to consummate the merger” due exactly to the financing woes Ergen now faces. “If we do not close the transaction on April 1, it is conceivable we may never be able to do so,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that the coronavirus will force Ergen to miss the 2023 deadline.

“Two months of severe market uncertainty doesn’t really alter my view of a company to execute on a three-year plan,” Lightshed Partners Analyst Walt Piecyk told The Post, saying it is too soon to question if Ergen will meet the deadline.

But even just a few months of delay could put Dish in a worse spot financially as it‘s already the clear laggard among the four wireless networks, making for a riskier loan profile, sources said.

Credit Suisse on April 5 noted that Dish’s stock has been the worst performer among the cable and wireless peers in part because of the challenging financing marketplace at a time when it needs $10 billion for its 5G network.

Plus, Dish still needs to close its acquisition of T-Mobile’s Boost, $1.4 billion, and has a principal debt payment of $1.1 billion due in May. Dish is projected to generate $750 million of free cash flow this year, Piecyk said, which is not enough to fund the network.

Ergen could raise cash by spinning out or sell his satellite-TV business, or sell up to 50 percent of the new network to a well-financed strategic partner like a tech company, Piecyk said.

“He can probably wait for a couple of months” to see if the financing markets improve, said a source who advised on merger. But after that, Ergen would need either an extension or a new plan to raise money.

“I would be a little surprised if Dish had a Plan B,” the source added.

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