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Dish Will Turn Eyes to Wireless, After AT&T-DirecTV Strands It at Pay-TV Dance

Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen is the odd man out at the M&A poker table, and the only big cards he's left holding point to a future play in wireless.

With AT&T's proposed $67 billion bid for DirecTV, Dish "loses both of its best exit options," MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett said in a note. "Dish Network just lost its game of musical chairs." The analyst downgraded his rating on Dish to "sell," maintaining a price target of $47 per share.

Dish shares were down about 3% in Monday morning trading, after opening down 1.7% at $58.92 per share.

Analysts see a takeout of Dish by the last big player in the telecom space -- Verizon Communications -- as unlikely. "If (Verizon) doesn't acquire Dish (and we don't think it does), then this leaves (T-Mobile) or (Sprint) as Dish's only options," Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Tim Horan wrote in a research note.

SEE ALSO: AT&T, DirecTV Deal Details Emerge as CEOs Sell Merger Benefits

But Dish's options in wireless are narrowing, too. With the upcoming FCC auction for AWS-3 spectrum, "Dish's spectrum doesn't feel like a must-have for anyone right now," Moffett said.

On Dish's May 8 earning calls, Ergen acknowledged that "we don't have the kind of money to go outbid Sprint for T-Mobile." He said that if Sprint didn't pursue T-Mobile or the deal was denied, "then T-Mobile would have strategic interest to us, yes."

In its core TV business, Dish's growth is plateauing and it will face two far bigger rivals in Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DirecTV (assuming those deals pass regulatory muster).

Dish has a hedge against future declines in subscribers with its planned over-the-top TV service. Dish earlier this spring cut a deal with Disney for OTT rights to five networks, including ESPN, and Ergen claimed the satcaster has enough programmers on board to launch a viable Internet TV service by the end of the year.

SEE ALSO: Dish's Ergen Says Satcaster Has Critical Mass of OTT Deals, Eyes Launch by End of 2014

However, even Ergen isn't sure whether Dish can make money on the offering, with a $20-$30 monthly price point targeted at younger consumers who aren't interested in traditional pay-TV.

"OTT is not going to move the needle this year for anybody. It's probably not going to move the needle next year," Ergen said. "It's a precursor to where we think the industry is going."

Related storiesAT&T, DirecTV Deal Details Emerge as CEOs Sell Merger BenefitsWill Wall Street Warm Up to AT&T-DirecTV Deal?AT&T to Acquire DirecTV in $67 Billion Deal 2014 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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