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22 February 2019

Dish insists it’s on schedule with NB-IoT, looks ahead to 5G

Despite recent attacks by T-Mobile USA, claiming Dish Network is just hoarding its spectrum and should forfeit it, Dish itself claims it is on target to hit its first build-out deadline of March 7 2020.

The pay-TV company has a rich patchwork of spectrum in different bands, but some of this carries ‘use it or lose it’ deadlines set by the FCC. To meet those, Dish said last year that it would initially roll out a national NB-IoT low power WAN, which would be transitioned, in phase two, to a 5G NR Standalone network.

“The deployment team is in full swing,” Erik Carlson, Dish’s CEO, said on the company’s earnings call last week. “Crews are working at staging and installing gear on towers across the nation. A lot of work is ahead but progress is definitely mounting.”

And chairman Charlie Ergen added: “Our expectation is that we’ll meet the deadline.” Although he admitted “we know there will be a lot of obstacles in the way”, he insisted reports that Dish would miss the FCC deadlines were “overblown”. “We’re past the point of no return at this point to do something different,” he said.

Dish and Ergen are known for making ambitious statements about their network ambitions. When Dish was first acquiring spectrum, by buying up bankrupt mobile satellite operators, it was full of talk of disrupting the established telcos with an advanced LTE roll-out. But it missed the window, partly because an infrastructure partnership with Sprint fell apart, as did a bid to acquire Sprint outright.

The lack of a network led to speculation that Ergen had bought the airwaves purely to hoard them as tradeable assets, with no intention of building – though some analysts believe that, if so, he has missed the period of peak value for the frequencies, because the big MNOs now have sufficient spectrum to meet their needs for several years, plus the prospect of large amounts of millimeter wave to come.

However, even if the direct sale price of its airwaves may have peaked, there are still non-MNOs which will be looking for ways to boost their own mobile activities – large cablecos are often tipped to buy Dish (outright, or just its spectrum) in future. But in the meantime, the satellite TV provider needs to placate the FCC by building out some of its spectrum. NB-IoT has two advantages – it takes relatively few sites, and therefore relatively low cost, to hit the coverage targets; and because it is dedicated to emerging IoT applications, it should be attractive to one or more partners aiming to expand in this space. Amazon has already been reported to be working with Dish on IoT, and a cableco like Comcast might also look for a wholesale network in order to add licensed IoT services to existing activities in unlicensed LoRa or WiFi.

When it comes to 5G, Dish will have the same dilemmas it had in 4G. It will need an infrastructure partner to make it commercially viable to build a network with which it could compete with the incumbents. If that network is to achieve decent ROI, it will need to service business models that go beyond adding wireless to Dish’s video and broadband services. A wholesale platform for enterprise and IoT services would be welcome in the USA, but will be a major extension of Dish’s business remit, and would require at least one major partner, such as Amazon, to mitigate the risk.

In technology terms, it will need to wait for 5G NR Standalone, since it does not have the existing mobile core to support the Non-Standalone 5G technology that the other US MNOs will deploy. That could help it to leapfrog the established operators in terms of full virtualization and the service agility that could enable. But again, that would require some bold moves which, despite Ergen’s fine words, has not been visible to date in Dish’s connectivity strategies.

Ergen said that network will help the US in the 5G race. “If we really want to compete with China in 5G, in my opinion you need a standalone 5G network from scratch,” Ergen said. “I would imagine that, in a little bit over a year from now we’ll start to have equipment in standalone 5G that we can start deploying.”

He said Dish will need to raise capital to afford the $10bn price tag he has put on the 5G roll-out, but he would be looking for infrastructure partners to reduce the capex cost. “We’re probably not going to build towers and we’re probably not going to lay a bunch of fiber,” he said, nor does he expect Dish to build its own cloud and edge compute capability.