"The logical next step for Dish would be to partner with a service provider like T-Mobile to build out in their spectrum," said Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research. Though AT&T is also considered a candidate to work with Dish, analysts say fourth-place T-Mobile is the most likely candidate because it has the most to gain.
However, if it's looking to make a deal, Dish doesn't hold all the cards. Sprint is now bigger and richer than it used to be, but it still has only about half as many customers as its bigger rivals. Some analysts expect Sprint to make a grab for T-Mobile, finally making Sprint a powerhouse to truly rival AT&T and Verizon Wireless. A behemoth like that wouldn't need Dish's spectrum.
To head off that possibility, Dish is likely to bid for T-Mobile itself, and soon, according to Sharma.
"If Dish is really serious about the wireless market it has to make a move in the next six months. Otherwise, as time goes on, SoftBank's positioning to acquire T-Mobile becomes stronger," Sharma said. He thinks Dish knows this and sparked bidding wars for Sprint and Clearwire just to make SoftBank pay more for its entry into the U.S.
Having put together a $25.5 billion bid for Sprint, Dish could probably afford to buy the smaller T-Mobile. But even if it did, Sharma thinks the buyouts wouldn't end there. Most countries' mobile industries consolidate down to three main players, and the U.S. is likely to follow suit, he said. In time, Sprint might turn the tables on its former suitor and buy out the combined Dish and T-Mobile.
Dish also has another asset that might come into play in a partnership or acquisition, according to analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates. That's the satellite dishes on top of current Dish subscribers' homes.
Here's how those might come into play, according to Farrar:
Dish's AWS-4 spectrum would be hard to use for service directly to cellphones because other carriers don't use it, he said. "Dish doesn't want to have to go and pay Apple to put AWS-4 on the next iPhone," Farrar said.
Instead, Dish could use that spectrum for a fixed wireless broadband service to the homes of its current subscribers, which they would receive on a modified version of the satellite dishes they already have on their roofs. Equipped with an added antenna for the new service, those dishes could receive signals from large AWS-4 cell towers placed five to eight miles apart, Farrar said.
Clearwire tried a similar approach with its WiMax network and an earlier, pre-standard system, but it needed more towers because it had to penetrate walls to reach indoor modems, he said. Dish's outdoor gear is perfectly positioned, he said. "The main gain you've got is that you're outside and on the roof," Farrar said. The dishes already have coaxial cable going into the homes, so there's no need to rewire, he said.