In a surprise move, satellite-TV operator DISH Network (DISH) has made a $25.5 billion bid for Sprint, the U.S.'s third-largest wireless operator.
DISH's bid is higher than Softbank's and may therefore trigger a bidding war between the two suitors.
DISH has offered about $7 a share for Sprint, with a mix of cash ($4.74 per share) and $2.26-worth of DISH stock. DISH's stock fell about 5% on the news, and the total value of the offer will continue to fluctuate based on DISH's stock price. DISH estimated that the initial offer was worth about 13% more than Softbank's offer.
The ultimate fate of Sprint, and the price of the winning deal, won't likely be known for months.
But DISH's bid represents the next big move in a tectonic shift that is revolutionizing the media and communications business.
Right now, the communications and media industries are dominated by 6 big groups of companies:
- The landline telephone operators
- The wireless telephone and data carriers
- The cable TV and broadband Internet companies
- The satellite-TV operators
- The TV content companies
- The Internet content and services companies
These groups of companies are all massive. And, until recently, they all operated within their own competitive silos.
But now that's all changing.
In the past decade, these groups of companies have gradually moved into one another's businesses, either through acquisition or by launching secondary services.
Cable operators like Cablevision (CVC), Comcast (CMCSA), and Time Warner Cable (TWX), for example, have launched land-line phone services and begun marketing them with broadband Internet through popular "triple plays."
Landline telephone companies like Verizon (VZ) have launched broadband Internet and cable TV services, competing directly with cable's bundles.
Cable operators have bought huge content companies (Comcast and NBC Universal).
Internet services companies like Google (GOOG) have begun offering high-speed Internet access services.
Related: Is Google Fiber a Better Deal?
And so on.
And now, in the next stage of the industry's evolution, cable and satellite-TV companies are starting to team up with wireless carriers.
The goal of this latest trend is to be able to offer a single subscription that provides all content and communications services everywhere.
In a world in which people are increasingly using multiple devices in multiple places to communicate with each other and consume content, this is obviously a service whose time has come.
Why would a consumer maintain separate and limited subscriptions with a phone company, a wireless company, a pay-TV company, and a broadband Internet company if a single company could provide all of this for one simple price?
Answer, most consumers wouldn't.
So it's not hard to imagine that, within a decade, we'll all be able to buy all of these services from massive integrated telecommunications services companies.
DISH's bid for Sprint is a step toward that future.
DISH wants to combine its satellite service and wireless "spectrum" licenses with Sprint's cellular capabilities and offer consumers a single subscription that takes care of their communications needs at home and on the go.
The service would allow customers to communicate, use the Internet, and consume a full range of TV content with any device anywhere.
Providing the mobile piece of this service would be relatively easy. DISH would simply have to extend its agreements with TV content companies to cover mobile distribution and then stream this content to customers on their mobile devices.
Providing the "home" solution could be more complicated. A consumer's mobile devices could also be used in the home. But one challenge for the DISH-Sprint combination would be providing enough wireless bandwidth to the home that customers who unplugged their physical cable-broadband wires could watch a large amount of full high-definition video at home. Cable TV and high-definition Internet video both use massive amounts of bandwidth, and although wireless speeds are now perfectly adequate for video consumption, wireless carrying capacity is not.
Watching a single high-definition movie, for example, could chew through the data allowance for a standard "mobile data" subscription. And consumers who have gotten used to watching as many movies as they want with cable TV and a cable broadband subscription would likely balk at suddenly having to worry about how much video they consumed.
Obviously, DISH already offers an excellent "downstream" pay-TV service to its satellite customers, and it could presumably continue to offer this. But merging this service with wireless Internet video in a single, seamless bundle could be challenging. And if satellite delivery becomes a critical part of the DISH-Sprint home solution, this would require new subscribers to replace their cable connections with satellite dishes.
So even if DISH succeeds in taking over Sprint, the "Holy Grail" of a single communications service may still be a ways off.
But it's coming.
And when it arrives, it will change the telecom and media industries forever.