While Dell stars in a comeback drama, he's also pursuing a TV career

Michael Dell's private investment company is buying TV stations, possibly to resell the spectrum

If that computer company he's buying doesn't work out, Michael Dell has another bet going: TV stations.

The PC pioneer, who launched a bid on Tuesday to buy back the company that bears his name, made another acquisition last month that was just the latest in a string of such deals. OTA Broadcasting, a subsidiary of Dell's private investment company MSD Capital, agreed on Jan. 15 to buy WYCN, an independent TV station in rural Nashua, New Hampshire.

Michael Dell probably isn't planning to become a local news, sports and weather mogul, industry analysts said. Instead, he's one of many investors buying up TV stations for their spectrum licenses, which could be worth far more to mobile operators than they are to broadcasters. A law passed last year called for auctioning those licenses for mobile use.

Through OTA, Dell has been snapping up stations around the country over the past few years. The company, based in Washington, D.C., now owns at least five stations, including two in the Seattle area, one near San Francisco and one in New York City. Other TV deals, including the US$4.1 million WYCN acquisition and a station purchase in Providence, Rhode Island, are moving toward approval. MSD Capital does not comment on its investments, spokesman Todd Fogarty said.

Dell probably sees a pot of gold in these stations' spectrum licenses, and if so, he has a sharp eye, according to mobile industry analysts. Under the FCC's so-called incentive auction process, holders of TV licenses will be able to put them up for sale and recover a portion of the proceeds. The government would bundle that spectrum into chunks big enough for mobile carriers to buy and use. The rules of the program are complex and not yet finished, but it's clear that auctions will take place eventually, analysts said.

With the rising demand for cellular data capacity, mobile operators may pay much more for those licenses than they are worth for broadcasting, observers say.

"Michael Dell and quite a few of the smart private equity guys are buying up TV stations for the spectrum value," said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

For the auctions to work, broadcasters in the biggest cities will have to put their licenses up for sale, Entner said. Mobile carriers will want spectrum in those big markets first, because that's where they need more capacity to serve subscribers. "We don't have a spectrum shortage in Wyoming. We have an imminent crisis in New York, in San Francisco" and in other major cities, he said.

New investors like Dell who own licenses in the major markets may play a key role by diving into the auctions while old-line broadcasters hold out, Entner said. As long as the big-city sales come off and the auction is a success, investors like Dell will probably get back twice what they paid for their stations, he believes.

Even if Dell is only helping to get TV channels repurposed into mobile spectrum, he's likely to benefit his eponymous company in the long term. Though it's gone in and out of the smartphone business, as a laptop maker and budding cloud computing player, Dell will always have an interest in mobile computing.

However, there might be some way for Dell to use the spectrum licenses more strategically, Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research said. After all, spectrum is a key asset in the mobile world. It might become a bargaining chip, or help Dell form partnerships with carriers or other players, or help the company create a market for a new technology.

The last idea contains a cautionary tale. Chip maker Qualcomm, already steeped in the mobile business, bought up local TV stations around the U.S. a few years ago to broadcast TV shows over a technology it had developed and built into a service, called FLO TV. That service could have helped Qualcomm sell the chips to receive FLO on phones, but the technology never drew enough interest from the public. After a few years, Qualcomm shut FLO down and sold the former TV spectrum -- at a profit -- to AT&T.

However, there's reason to believe Dell's founder might try something more ambitious than flipping the licenses, Marshall said.

"If you look at Dell's track record with the company [since his return as CEO in 2007] it hasn't done particularly well, and they've got to do something radical to turn that company around," Marshall said. "Otherwise, it's almost pointless taking it private."

Ownership is the thing to watch, Marshall said. As long as the stations remain under Dell's private investment company, it's likely they'll just be sold. "If that asset gets transferred into Dell, you've got to assume that they're doing a little more than just trying to make some money," he said.

Either way, it would be wise to watch what Michael Dell does with his money, Pund-IT analyst Charles King said.

"I think that Michael Dell's story is ongoing. It's not finished by any means," King said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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Stephen Lawson

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