"The question is not, 'Can Dish buy them,' but 'Can Dish actually turn this company that they're buying into a viable competitor?" Entner said. "They would have to inevitably raise money to build out the network to be competitive."
3. Dish takes a minority stake in Clearwire
When it made its last bid for Clearwire, Dish said it was willing to settle for less than the whole company -- under certain conditions. It wants at least 25 percent of Clearwire's shares, the power to name three members to its board, and other rights such as approving all material transactions with third parties -- which would include any acquisitions of Clearwire.
This arrangement could make things very awkward for Sprint, Entner said. Sprint would still be funding the expansion of Clearwire's network but would probably have to let Dish use the network as well, he said. On top of that, Dish might make Clearwire hike Sprint's cost to use the network. Alternatively, Sprint might let Clearwire's network languish without the buildout that it needs to take advantage of all its spectrum.
However, Dish's plan to buy a minority stake might unravel in court, Entner said. Sprint has already warned that Dish's plan would violate an existing shareholder agreement between Sprint and Clearwire.
4. Sprint lets Dish have Clearwire
This would set Dish up as a new mobile operator with a spectrum portfolio competitive with any carrier in the country. However, actually getting a new operation going in that spectrum to where it could rival the biggest carriers would take time.
"Dish is coming from a different market. The process of catching up with the others is going to be more costly and challenging for them," Marshall said. "It's a mass-market business, at the end of the day. Scale matters."
As hard as it would be for Sprint to take advantage of Clearwire's spectrum while bickering with Dish as a minority shareholder, it's even less likely the company would let Dish take it all over, Entner said. Combining Clearwire's frequencies with its own and with spectrum it's seeking from bankrupt satellite provider LightSquared, Dish could have 200MHz of spectrum, he said.
"Suddenly this entry from the left has the most spectrum in the whole industry," Entner said. Meanwhile, Sprint would be left competing in upcoming auctions for former TV channels in the 600MHz band, an uncertain and expensive prospect.
5. SoftBank walks away
Any outcome that keeps SoftBank from getting Clearwire's spectrum might scare away Sprint's suitor.
"The Clearwire assets are an important part of the overall strategy with SoftBank," Marshall said. "They've got to secure those assets."