Sprint, Clearwire, Softbank, Dish: Who’s playing whom?

Thursday’s big revelation that Sprint(s s) was seeking to buy out Clearwire(s clwr) sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Taking over Clearwire would return a vast trove of airwaves to Sprint’s direct control, which would leave its sitting pretty on top of the U.S. spectrum heap. But it didn’t take long before the grumbling started.

Investors aren’t very happy with Sprint’s low-ball offer. And now Reuters is reporting that Sprint’s would-be owner Softbank won’t go along with any acquisition that valued Clearwire at more than $2.97 a share, which is just seven cents more than what Sprint has offered. If Reuters’ sources are correct then Softbank doesn’t see the value in Clearwire that everyone else seems to see.

Softbank’s $20.1 billion deal to take control over Sprint is of vastly more importance to Sprint than taking over its non-neglected WiMAX provider. Why start negotiations with Clearwire that would result in a price Softbank is sure to reject?

gameofchessSpectrum policy analyst Tim Farrar believes Sprint isn’t interested in buying Clearwire – at least not yet. Rather he believes Sprint’s bid is just one maneuver in a very complex chess game that pits carriers against one another over spectrum and in which Softbank, Clearwire, Dish Network(s dish) and AT&T(s t) are all players.

You can read Farrar’s full analysis for yourself on his blog, but what it boils down to is this: Sprint wants to block any deal between Dish and Clearwire to operate a shared network using Dish’s newly minted 4G spectrum. By making an offer that Clearwire’s strategic investors – Intel(s intc), Comcast(s cmsca) and Bright House – would likely consider, Sprint and Softbank could hold up any Dish-Clearwire pact in the works, at least until Softbank’s acquisition of Sprint closes. From Farrar’s blog:

It’s surely not a coincidence that this offer came on the same day that [Dish Chairman] Charlie Ergen received approval from the FCC for terrestrial use of his AWS-4 spectrum, with Dish Stating that “will consider its strategic options and the optimal approach to put this spectrum to use for the benefit of consumers”. After all DISH appears to have had a potential deal with Clearwire on the table for several months, held up only by delays in the FCC’s approval (which were largely caused by Sprint’s intervention via efforts to gain access to the H-block), and has bought $750M of Clearwire’s debt.

If Sprint successfully blocks a Dish-Clearwire deal, what happens then? Well, after the Softbank deal closes, the new company could decide whether to pursue Clearwire in earnest. But Farrar thinks the most likely outcome is that Dish would be forced into the arms of AT&T, which has been eyeballing the satellite broadcaster’s nationwide LTE band. If AT&T buys Dish’s spectrum, then it would have to divest some of its current licenses, which Sprint could then pick up.

It sounds crazy to me, too, but I’ll bet Farrar is more right in his analysis than wrong. There are so many rumors and so much innuendo circling Sprint, Clearwire and Dish that I can’t tell up from down anymore. It’s obvious that Sprint has some ulterior motive – it didn’t just suddenly fall in love with the idea of controlling Clearwire after four years of letting the WiMAX operator languish. We can’t accept any of these deals at face value.