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DISH's Ergen Taking Bets on Wireless Hand

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Roughly 20 years ago, DISH Network (DISH) was facing an uphill battle in a plan to go from a maker of rural satellite dishes to a national distributor of broadcast television [DBS] -- the company had to let the bold bet ride on a Federal Communication Commission approval to launch a TV satellite into space and build the network.

The approvals came, the satellite flew, and the company's co-founder Charlie Ergen was able to build DISH into a satellite TV alternative to cable that earned $14 billion in revenue and turned a $1.5 billion profit in 2011.

Now, having stepped down from his role as chief executive, Ergen is trying use satellites for a different mission -- a national wireless service that could profit from and meet ever-escalating smartphone demands emanating from Apple (AAPL) iPhones and Google (GOOG) Android-powered devices.

After spending years scavenging bankruptcy courts for spectrum -- government regulated airwaves that smartphone data runs over -- has Ergen, a noted poker player, pushed the limits of his satellite slinging ways, or assembled winning cards in the wireless sector?

In a sense, DISH investors have drawn a strong wireless hand, but they need to decide on whether to stick it out for the flop.

Investor comfort in DISH is key as the company prepares for what could be a transformative second half of 2012, which could catapult it into competition with wireless leaders like Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T), or leave it lampooned with spectrum assets that don't fit with its slowly declining but cash gushing satellite business.

DISH is sitting on unused wireless assets that may have a similar value to its core satellite business. Still, the assets are also a potential landmine. This long-term strategic shift will overlay the DISH second quarter earnings story that investors will be navigating on August 8.

Few companies have the stomach to enter the wireless business because of the likely tens of billions in capital expenditure needed to build a national network. Meanwhile, the FCC is yet to even detail whether it will allow DISH to use the spectrum assets it's acquired in the 40 megahertz S-band, and if so, with what conditions.

Amid these risks, estimates of DISH's second quarter earnings are described as 'optimistic' by Evercore Partners analysts.

It could come down to a confidence game in Ergen, who remains chairman and is calling the shots in the wireless push, and a vote from DISH shareholders even if second quarter earnings fall short of Wall Street estimates. If his ambitions remain large, DISH believers are convinced that Ergen has displayed consistent discipline in guiding the Englewood, Co.-based company.

"I have owned this stock for over five years and I think Charlie Ergen is brilliant. I trust him with my capital," says Leon Cooperman, chairman and CEO of hedge fund Omega Advisors. "He has a valuable asset in his satellite subscribers and he has built very valuable assets in wireless," adds Cooperman, whose hedge fund is among DISH Network's 25 biggest shareholders with 3,392,200 shares as of March 31, according to Bloomberg data.

If the second quarter earnings consensus is optimistic, it's not an issue that seems to concern Cooperman. He thinks the company remains 'undervalued.'

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