By Liana B. Baker and Soyoung Kim and Nicola Leske
(Reuters) - Dish (DISH) is considering making a bid for T-Mobile (TMUS.N) next year, according to people close to the matter, in what would be the satellite TV provider's second attempt in as many years at acquiring a major wireless operator and potentially setting the stage for a new bidding war with Softbank (TYO:9984).
Dish Network Corp, which lost out to Japanese telecoms giant Softbank in its attempt to buy Sprint Corp (NYS:S) several months ago, has since been sizing up T-Mobile US Inc as a takeover candidate and has talked to majority owner Deutsche Telekom AG (DTE.DE) about a potential deal, the three sources said.
Dish's Chairman Charlie Ergen is looking to expand the company he founded beyond the mature pay TV market and also wants to put to work the billions of dollars in wireless spectrum he's amassed in the past few years.
Sprint is also mulling a takeover of T-Mobile and could make a bid in the first half of 2014, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal last week.
While Dish has not yet decided whether to move forward with a bid, the company does not intend to sit on the sidelines if Sprint does bid for T-Mobile, two of the people said.
All the people asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media.
Dish, T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom declined comment.
Any bidding war for T-Mobile would play out in a much more subtle, less public way than the bidding frenzy earlier this year for Sprint, as majority owner Deutsche Telekom can determine who it wants to sell the No.4 wireless operator to.
Shares of T-Mobile rose 2.1 percent to close at $27.25 on Wednesday. Dish edged up 0.5 percent to $55.29.
PATH AHEAD A combination of Dish and T-Mobile would have an easier path to antitrust approval because it would keep four large wireless operators in the United States: Verizon Wireless (VZ) (VOD.L), AT&T Inc (NYS:T), Sprint and T-Mobile.
However, Dish would have less synergies with T-Mobile than Sprint, because it owns wireless spectrum but does not have a network or infrastructure. Dish has a market value of $25 billion while T-Mobile has a market value of $21 billion.
A merged Sprint and T-Mobile would be still smaller than market leaders Verizon and AT&T, but could run up against the government's previous stated stance that it wants to see four wireless players in the country.
When the U.S. government blocked No. 2 wireless operator AT&T's proposed takeover of T-Mobile in 2011, antitrust regulators said that the market needed four national competitors.
The German operator, which owns 67 percent of T-Mobile, has been sounding out options to lessen the impact of the U.S. wireless business on its balance sheet for many years and even quietly discussed buying Sprint in 2008.
T-Mobile US was still struggling to compete at the time of its attempted merger with AT&T. But this year, the company has regained some ground with some unusual and competitive offers that appear to be winning over consumers and forcing bigger rivals to follow in its footsteps.
Dish's chairman Charlie Ergen has said that he wants to keep his options open as the company expands in the wireless space. Dish has been trying to acquire more spectrum in both bankruptcy and government auctions and has also said it is open to forging partnerships with other companies such as Sprint.
Ergen, who founded Dish 33 years ago, has said he would look for ways to use wireless spectrum to enhance its video offerings rather than in areas such as voice, data and texting services where telecom companies have dominance.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker, Soyoung Kim, Nicola Leske and Sinead Carew in New York and Harro Ten Wolde in Frankfurt; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Andrew Hay)