If you pick up a ticket in hopes of snagging a portion of the Powerball bonanza, it's called gambling. But when Michael Dell spends $80 million for a potential $4 billion payoff, it's called investing.

And a very canny and innovative type of investment, at that. As the Wall Street Journal explained, Dell's investment fund has been buying TV stations -- $80 million worth since 2011. You've probably heard of none of them. The more than a dozen properties include a Seattle Spanish-language station, one in New York that broadcasts in Korean, and a handful of religious stations near Pittsburgh.

The strategy seems less the path to a windfall than the way for a wealthy man to indulge interests in multicultural entertainment. But as Dell's career has shown, from building his PC business to taking it public to making it private again, he usually has a good reason for doing what he does.

In this case, the following conditions made the opportunity possible:

  1. Mobile was becoming insanely big.
  2. Increased demand required more bandwidth.
  3. Bandwidth is finite and limits the amount of voice and data transmission.
  4. Big telecoms with large pockets needed more and would pay big for it.
  5. Small TV stations had valuable bandwidth they weren't required to give up.
  6. If you owned those stations, you could close them and give up the bandwidth, for a price.

The FCC is getting ready to hold an auction for bandwidth that licensees are willing to give up. According to the Journal, the value of the bandwidth that Dell now holds could be as much as $4.2 billion, based on the FCC's own current pricing.

Something's monetary value is always relative to what someone is willing to pay. The innovative part of Dell's investment was the recognition that property value is also dependent on how you see what you own. As a TV station, the value is one thing. As a potential source of spectrum, mining the available assets, the value is something else. That Korean-language station went for $6.6 million in 2012. The spectrum could go for $377 million, although the prices could well come in under the initial FCC expectations. This will be an auction and corporations bidding on the spectrum will try to minimize the cost to themselves.

It's also worth remembering that there is a price others have or will pay for the business move. People employed at the stations will be out of jobs, because without spectrum, what is a station to do? Running a media business on the internet is hardly a sure thing. And what about the communities that the stations served? Will they find something to replace what they lose?

Published on: Jan 13, 2016
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