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10 May 2022

Dish goes live, but needs to address spectrum complexity challenges  

Dish Network has finally launched its first commercial 5G services in the USA after a series of delays, holding a launch event in its initial market of Las Vegas, Nevada. At the same time, the company shed some light on its tariffs, and announced that it had added Samsung to the supplier roster for its multivendor Open RAN. 


Dish told Axios that its service would cost $30 a month. That includes “truly unlimited Smart 5G data, talk and text. Additionally, we include unique perks, such as exclusive access to the Project Genesis app and a white-glove delivery experience”. The first device available is the Motorola Edge+, priced at $899.99. 


This tariff comes in below typical deals from major operators, which are usually $40-$50 for unlimited, and more in line with MVNOs such as Mint Mobile, which also charges $30 a month. But some analysts believe Dish should be more radical and innovative with its pricing to attract attention and early sign-ups, embarking on a marketing mission to rival TMO’s Uncarrier campaigns of the past few years.  


John Byrne, an analyst with GlobalData, commented in a client note: “The network may be ‘live’ but they seem more focused on hitting their deployment deadlines than actually having customers on their network.” Analysts also criticized the small choice of handsets at launch and the fact that the Genesis app is not complete. Byrne wrote: “I looked for the Project Genesis app in the Android store and all I found was a bible study app. Maybe you’re supposed to enter your prayer for the Dish network to come to your neighborhood.” 


The operator has not, as some had expected, requested an extension of its FCC deadline to cover 20% of the US population with 5G by June 14 this year, so further markets must be close behind Las Vegas. Dish has said it will go live on over 120 markets of varying sizes by the June deadline, and these are now listed on its Genesis website. This currently just provides information about the 5G services but it appears that it will  also be the brand for a 5G customer app, supporting access to services, mobile account management and so on.  


Dish chairman Charlie Ergen told analysts: “We don’t think we’ll need to ask for an extension at this point”, especially as Dish had procured enough radios before supply chain disruption started to bite. “We want to keep our nose to the grindstone and do what we said we’re going to do,” he added. “We’re just going to get it done…this isn’t our first rodeo.” 


However, he was surprisingly open about the potential short cuts that might be involved in keeping on the right side of the FCC, and so avoiding fines or other penalties. Dish just needs to achieve coverage, not necessarily a “robust offering”, to meet its  commitment, he acknowledged, saying: “The main thing is to get the network up and operating and starting to put water through the pipes making sure that we see how it works and learn.” 


It will be important, for Dish’s public image and the marketing impact of its first launch, that Las Vegas does not suffer from these potential compromises. John Swieringa, the former T-Mobile USA executive who is now Dish Wireless’s president and COO, said: “The goal is to have a very robust network in Vegas – sort of nail it there – and then we can scale it out across all the other markets. It’s just the start of the race. There’s a lot of work to do.” 


To tick all the boxes for a demanding US 5G consumer or enterprise, Ergen admitted Dish will need to introduce a wider range of devices, including lower cost handsets, and to activate all its spectrum. The varied patchwork of spectrum that Dish has built up over the years – through M&A, trading, leasing and auctions – gives it a good variety of coverage and capacity bands and has been secured relatively cheaply, when compared on a per-MHz/POP basis with that of some of its rivals, or its peers in other markets.  


However, it comes with challenges related to efficient aggregation and to device support. 5G allows for far more bands to be aggregated than in 4G, and increasingly there is a dynamic aspect to this. Since Dish has no legacy network, it can make optimal use of these 5G capabilities without being constrained by 2G/3G/4G requirements. However, large-scale carrier aggregation is by no means simple even in 5G, and of course, it requires support from the device makers, which are usually reluctant to design smartphones for unusual spectrum bands or combinations, especially for new operators with no track record.  


For the initial launch, Dish is aggregating its holdings in Band 66 (Extended AWS in 1710-1780 MHz uplink and 2100-2200 MHz downlink) and Band 71 (600 MHz). As Ergen acknowledged, to deliver the full range of quality services it is promising, the key will be to activate its Band 70 spectrum (AWS-4 in 1695-1710 uplink and 1995-2020 downlink) spectrum, which will add significant capacity.  


Unusually in 5G, Dish’s midband spectrum is weighted towards paired (FDD) bands, and its particular combination of frequencies in the AWS ranges is very unusual. In 2015, the operator scored a victory when thee 3GPP approved the designation of Band 66 for 5G, effectively creating an official location and vendor support structure for many of the disparate spectrum assets Dish had amassed, some from the purchase of mobile satellite players, before it took part in 5G auctions. Band 66 brought together Dish’s AWS-1 and paired AWS-3 bands and some upper AWS-4 downlink, enabling carrier aggregation across the AWS range in a standard, 3GPP-approved away that would be a prerequisite for mainstream device support. 


Dish has Band 70 devices in the labs now and expects to launch them in September or October this year. The FCC has approved two Motorola smartphones so far that support Dish’s Band 70. Of course, a key goal will be to have the band supported in the next iPhone. 


Dish has also spent billions of dollars over the past few years in FCC auctions, including CBRS C-band and the recent 3.45 GHz sale. This brings more TDD (unpaired) spectrum into its portfolio and aligns it more neatly with the USA’s more mainstream 5G bands. Dish Wireless’s chief commercial officer, Stephen Bye, said the addition of these TDD bands was one factor behind the selection of Samsung to provide RAN equipment (see below), and explained why Dish had added yet another radio vendor. Samsung has been a pioneer in Massive MIMO solutions for the 5G TDD midbands, and can potentially supply radio units at a faster pace than Dish’s smaller suppliers, helping it to populate the new spectrum and therefore meet its coverage targets. Bye was insistent that these were reasons for the Samsung RAN deal, not any problems with existing suppliers or with integrating a multivendor network. 


“TDD is an important component in the timing [of the Samsung announcement], because we wanted to get through the auction and understand what our spectrum position would be,” he said. “And then as we’re deploying TDD, we’re looking at Massive MIMO and solutions that do carrier aggregation between FDD and TDD. So we were evaluating the technology options we had for that deployment.” 


Rather like Rakuten, Dish sounds stronger on the vision for its network architecture than when it talks about its current commercial business. Its heartland pay-TV operations have been under severe pressure for some years from cable, IPTV and over-the-top offerings. Even its existing mobile business, based on the Boost company it acquired from Sprint when the latter merged with T-Mobile, had a bad first quarter to 2022. In the quarter, Boost made a net loss of 343,000 subscribers, bringing its base down to 8.2m, a worse than expected performance.  


Analysts at MoffettNathanson believe that Dish’s wireless base has shrunk by more than 17% since the acquisition was completed in 2020. This has been partly down to the disruption of TMO’s shutdown of Sprint’s CDMA network, on which Boost ran as an MVNO. The relationship between Dish and TMO has become increasingly fractious because of the issues this has caused for Boost’s performance and last summer, Dish replaced its MVNO agreement with TMO with a broader alliance with AT&T.