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T-Mobile could soon belong to Dish

T-Mobile chief executive John Legere speaks to guests during the Un-carrier 9.0 event in New York in March. (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

For the third time in four years, T-Mobile may be looking for a buyer.

The nation's fourth-biggest cellular provider is reportedly in talks with Dish Network, the country's second-largest satellite TV company, about a sale. A deal would install T-Mobile chief executive John Legere as CEO of the combined company, according to the Wall Street Journal, while Dish chief executive Charlie Ergen would take over as chairman. It's unclear what Dish may be prepared to pay for T-Mobile.

Dish and T-Mobile officials declined to comment.

Dish Networks is reportedly in early stage talks about merging with the nation’s fourth-largest wireless carrier T-Mobile. (Video: Reuters)

The tie-up, if it happens, would be the latest in a string of cross-industry acquisitions in recent years. AT&T is widely expected to receive federal approval for its purchase of DirecTV in the coming weeks. Verizon last month announced it was going to buy the Internet titan AOL. And in 2011, Comcast purchased NBCUniversal, along with all of its media content.

[AT&T is prepared to abide by the new net neutrality rules under the DirecTV deal]

Analysts said an agreement between Dish and T-Mobile wouldn't likely face regulatory opposition. A deal would allow both companies to grow in important ways, said New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin, in a research note Thursday.

T-Mobile, lagging behind rivals such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, would be able to expand its mobile broadband network with Dish's many airwave licenses. Dish offers television programming but has few ways of getting that content onto mobile devices and the Internet, an increasingly important distribution channel as consumers flock to online streaming services.

Speaking to investors Tuesday, Ergen said that if Dish did enter the wireless market, it would likely be with a partner who could help set up the towers and equipment. The Journal's report suggests T-Mobile could be that partner.

But the biggest advantage to the deal may also be its largest liability. Combining Dish's airwaves with T-Mobile's would lead to the new company controlling a substantial chunk of the nation's wireless spectrum, putting it ahead of AT&T and Verizon, according to data published by Recon Analytics. Spectrum, a finite resource, enables voice and data to be carried over the air to cell phones, televisions, radios and computers.

A dwindling number of providers controlling most of the nation's airwaves could give regulators pause. And Ergen, a notoriously tough negotiator, could still wind up with no deal. But even the rumors of an acquisition underscore how quickly the industry is responding to the growing demand for broadband services.