The only reason Dish's reported merger talks with T-Mobile should come as a surprise is if you haven't been watching the company at all over the past few years. Sure, the merger might be a consolation prize for both companies, but for Dish in particular it would be a win after a long and probably frustrating string of losses. For at least four years now — and probably longer — Chairman Charlie Ergen has been striving to find ways to get Dish involved in a real wireless network. The company has fought with the FCC, juggled wireless spectrum, and been in talks with more companies than you might remember. Dish has been grasping, and these T-Mobile rumors are just the latest in a long string of rumors about the company.
So you might be tempted to count Dish out, to assume that this is just a quixotic quest and that Ergen and his company are more likely to dangle from a windmill than to build an actual cell tower on top of one. But you shouldn't count Dish out just yet. It's not just that the only tech executive who's more unfiltered than Ergen happens to be T-Mobile's CEO John Legere, it's that interspersed with the wireless losses is a story of a very important win. Dish's Hopper DVR famously added the ability to skip commercials and even more famously led to a huge row with television networks. Yet even as Dish capitulated on ad skipping, it won real concessions: the ability to stream content from those networks over the internet. The result was Sling TV, the first real, live TV streaming service in the US with any kind of meaningful scale.
Yes, Dish's many (many!) attempts to get into wireless seem crazy when you see them listed out like this. But maybe, just maybe, Dish will finally be able to claim it's crazy like a fox.
April 6th, 2011: Dish acquires Blockbuster
Our tale begins in 2011, when Dish thought it would be a grand idea to acquire the flailing and failing Blockbuster video. Said then-CEO Tom Cullen, "Blockbuster will complement our existing video offerings while presenting cross-marketing and service-extension opportunities for Dish Network."
September 23rd, 2011: Blockbuster movie pass
So why did Dish buy Blockbuster? Here's one reason: launching a streaming video service to augment the quickly dying physical DVD (and VHS!) rental business. Dish vs. Netflix? That was the idea.
December 12th, 2011: Waiting in the wings for T-Mobile
Back in 2011, AT&T was aggressively trying to buy T-Mobile, a deal that would ultimately fail. And Dish hoped it would, saying that it would want to swoop in and make a deal. That, friends, is foreshadowing.
January 9th, 2012: The Hopper
At CES, Dish unveiled a DVR that would later gain a controvesial commercial-skipping feature. But then, it was just a way to offer a good DVR for Dish's core business. When the commercial-skipping feature came in May of that year, broadcasters were not pleased.
Spring 2012: Dish wants to build an LTE network
Throughout the spring of 2012 as Dish was making noise about the T-Mobile / AT&T merger, it was busy trying to convince the FCC to let it build an LTE network of its own. Negotiations did not go very well, and the proposed 2016 rollout never got off the ground in a real way.
May 24th, 2012: Networks sue Dish over the Hopper
True, the Hopper isn't an example of Dish trying to break out of TV, but it is an example of Dish trying to drag it kicking and screaming into the future. The main kickers and screamers were Fox, NBC, and, most of all, CBS. It didn't take long for the legal battle to begin.
October 1st, 2012: DishNet offers rural broadband via satellite
Say what you will about Dish's many foiled attempts to break into new industries, it knew that it needed to try. It also knew that broadband internet was the future of TV, and deserves credit for doing a better job of offering it in rural areas than most.
October 5th, 2012: Dish gives up on streaming video service
That Blockbuster acqusition didn't look so hot after Dish threw in the towel in its fight to compete directly with Netflix. Chairman Charlie Ergen said, "Worst case, we'll take our money after having wasted some time, not much money, and life goes on." Everybody else said, "Womp womp."
November 16th, 2012: Dish rumored to be in talks with Google for a wireless network
Hey now, two companies long rumored to want to launch a new wireless network are better than one — and so we heard tell that Dish and Google were in preliminary talks. The way things shook out, that didn't go very far.
December 7th, 2012: Dish and Sprint start getting friendly
T-Mobile not available? Launching your own network not going so hot? Talk to Sprint, the mobile network that never saw an MVNO it didn't want to power. Not that it happened, of course.
December 12th, 2012: Dish finally gets FCC approval to build an LTE network
Dish finally won that fight, but then, well, didn't do much with the victory.
January 8th, 2013: Dish makes a surprise bid to buy Clearwire
The tangled web of Clearwire and Sprint is much, much too complicated to try to unravel in this small space. But Dish went ahead and made it even more complicated by trying to outfox Sprint to buy Clearwire itself. Bold move, but by now you can probably guess how successful it would end up being. Hint: not succesful.
CES 2013: The Great Hopper Award Scandal
Dish's Hopper DVR was going to win CNET's best in show for CES, but CNET is owned by CBS, and CBS was in active litigation with Dish about the Hopper. Award denied, drama ensued, and Dish ended up a winner anyway, getting far more attention for the Hopper than it otherwise would have.
Spring 2013: Dish and Softbank duke it out for Sprint
Dish's attempt to buy out Clearwire from under Sprint got significantly more complicated when Japanese giant SoftBank entered the picture. SoftBanks' CEO called Dish's bid "incomplete and illusory" while Ergen said "culture matters." Nobody said you had to be nice in the wireless mergers and acquisitions game.
June 26th, 2013: Dish finally backs out of Clearwire deal
After an incredibly frothy couple of months of wheeling, dealing, and posturing, Dish finally saw the writing on the wall. It backed away from buying Clearwire and let Sprint and SoftBank do their thing together.
September, 2013: Hopper wins in court
A series of court cases culminated in dish ultimately winning out with the Hopper: commercial skipping could stay.
November 12th, 2013: Dish floats the idea of merging with DirecTV
Ergen said it "could make a lot of sense." Later, in March 2013, rumors swirled that the CEOs of both companies had been in talks. It wasn't the first time the two companies have been rumored to be in talks, but it will probably be the last: AT&T is trying to acquire DirecTV now.
January 9th, 2014: Dish bails on Lightsquared acquisition
Think the Clearwire / Sprint deal was fraught? Not half as much as Lightsquared's attempts to get a wireless network going despite concerns it could interfere with bandwidh reserved for the military. Dish couldn't help but pursue a deal there too, but ultimately it didn't go anywhere.
March 3rd, 2014: Dish cuts a deal to cut back ad skipping on ABC
That firm stand that Dish took to enable ad skipping on the Hopper? Not that firm! But Dish did secure the rights to stream video from ABC and Disney, rights that it would definitely use in the not-too-distant future.
December 6th, 2014: CBS and Dish make nice, neutering ad skipping there, too
CBS had finally played the trump card: pulling programming from Dish. To get it back, Dish had to compromise on ad skipping — and it secured a streaming deal in the process, too.
January 5th, 2015: SlingTV streaming television launches
Dish wasted little time putting those streaming deals to good use, launching SlingTV as the first real option for cord cutters who want a wide selection of live TV. Unfortunately, SlingTV doesn't allow for DVR functionality (yet?).
June 3rd, 2015: T-Mobile and Dish in talks to merge
And here we are, four years later. Dish couldn't make it happen with Sprint, never launched its own network, and is making a go of it with T-Mobile. The real question is what happens when Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen and T-Mobile CEO John Legere get in a room. There's a real chance it looks like the fiercest love story since Gigli.
22 ways Dish tried to escape being a basic TV provider