Dish Could Unseat T-Mobile as the Uncarrier

Yes, Dish Network faces an uphill climb in its plan to build a 5G network covering 70% of the US population by 2023. But don't count it out completely.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

July 26, 2019

7 Min Read
Dish Could Unseat T-Mobile as the Uncarrier

Move over T-Mobile, there might just be a new Uncarrier in town.

Dish Network today announced a $5 billion deal to buy customers and spectrum from Sprint alongside MVNO access to T-Mobile, in order to build a 5G network covering 70% of the US population by June 2023.

The move positions Dish to become the nation's fourth nationwide 5G provider. And some believe Dish might well ultimately replace T-Mobile as the wireless industry's disruptor.

To be clear, there's plenty of skepticism that Dish will actually follow through on its promises to put its vast spectrum holdings to use with a 5G network. "Dish hasn't made any effort to provide real, consumer-facing wireless services that could offset the high prices of the major players. The company is years and billions of dollars of investment away from doing any such thing, even if it does miraculously start living up to its promises and becomes more than a spectrum warehouse," said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner in a statement.

Even T-Mobile itself has attacked Dish over the issue, arguing in 2018 that Dish "intends to continue to warehouse spectrum with no benefit to consumers. The [FCC's Wireless] Bureau should not permit Dish to succeed with its plan."

And if Dish moves forward with the construction of a 5G network today, it could still sell itself to a company like Verizon or Charter at some point in the future.

Indeed, Reuters reported just yesterday that Charter made a bid for the assets of Sprint and T-Mobile while Dish was negotiating for its transaction with the DoJ. According to the report, Charter said the DoJ didn't return its calls on the matter.

Don't count Dish out yet
However, the analysts at Wall Street firm New Street Research argued that Dish could well steal the "Uncarrier" mantel from T-Mobile because Dish will be in a position to provide better, faster service at a drastically lower price than other operators.

"We worked with network engineers to determine what it would cost Dish to build and operate a new 5G network," the analysts wrote in a report this week. "We show that, once fully loaded, Dish would have a lower cost per unit of capacity than any of the four national carriers today. This gives Dish the ability to price aggressively, to fill the network swiftly, and to create tremendous value for themselves at the expense of the existing carriers. We argue that if our analysis is correct, Dish will find the capital required to build; there are a number of potential partners with deep pockets who have a strategic interest in seeing a new, low-cost network deployed."

Specifically, the firm said that Dish's cost advantage stems from the fact that it will focus exclusively on 5G, rather than having to support 3G and 4G, and will therefore gain a 40% capacity advantage over its peers. As a result, the firm said Dish will enjoy a "cost per unit of capacity" that's just 25% of Verizon’s. "A sustainable cost advantage paves the way for Dish to be disruptive," the analysts wrote.

Already Dish's Charlie Ergen has argued that Dish could build a "greenfield" 5G network at a fraction of the cost of its rivals using the latest technologies and techniques, much like Rakuten in Japan is planning to do.

"Longer-term, Dish could eventually be a disrupter when its own network is complete and/or attains a majority partner," noted the analysts at Cowen.

Of course, it would take Dish years to reach the point where it could legitimately compete against the likes of AT&T and Verizon. And, as the analysts at Cowen pointed out, Dish would probably need billions of dollars in financing for its 5G network buildout. That financing could come from Amazon, Google or a cable company, potentially.

"New entrants have had a REALLY hard time cracking the competitive US wireless market," wrote Strategy Analytics analyst Susan Welsh de Grimaldo in a recent blog post. "In the last year or two we have seen some growth by Xfinity, Charter, and Google Fi, but getting to scale at a national level is challenging as a new brand in wireless. While Dish already has a national presence and brand, as well as wireless spectrum assets and some experience working to widely deploy a wireless network, building a competitive national wireless broadband network and acquiring subscribers is hard work -- and expensive."

Summed the analysts at New Street: "Is Dish for real?! That's the whole thing. The only thing that really matters. For everyone concerned."

Nonetheless, if Dish is able to assemble all the necessary pieces of its strategic puzzle, it could well slip into the gap that T-Mobile is clearly leaving in the Uncarrier market.

T-Mobile is yesterday's Uncarrier
Just like Dish, it will take years for T-Mobile to get onto its feet by integrating Sprint's customers and network. And if the past year is any indication, T-Mobile may not be able to play the role of disruptor it once did -- at least not anytime soon.

T-Mobile's withdrawal from its "Uncarrier" role can best be seen by its "entry" into the TV market. The company had promised to completely disrupt the TV space, but instead it belatedly introduced a TV service in a handful of cities that is priced far above what most cable TV providers charge. In a Netflix world, T-Mobile's TVision Home landed like a typewriter in an age of laptops.

Similarly, T-Mobile's entry into the banking space earlier this year earned little fanfare beyond a press release from the company. That's noteworthy considering T-Mobile has traditionally held massive PR events to announce other "Uncarrier" moves, such as unlimited video streaming or its revamped customer service program.

And T-Mobile's tentative entry into the 5G market in recent weeks, with services running on millimeter-wave spectrum, exactly mirrors the initial 5G strategies employed by AT&T and Verizon -- which is noteworthy considering T-Mobile's CTO railed against both AT&T and Verizon when he announced T-Mobile's 5G plans in 2017.

Of course, T-Mobile has been busy trying to consummate its merger with Sprint, and that effort may have forestalled any desire by T-Mobile executives to make an Uncarrier splash. But the reason driving T-Mobile to attempt a merger with Sprint may also be the one preventing further Uncarrier announcements: T-Mobile has been adding new customers to its network in droves, and might need more scale and more spectrum to continue doing so. Meaning, T-Mobile won't be able to truly disrupt the market until it's finished integrating Sprint's network and customers, by which time Dish might be ready to unleash "uncarrier" announcements of its own.

"We've been here before," Dish's Ergen said in the company's press release today. "When we entered pay-TV with the launch of our first satellite in 1995, we faced entrenched cable monopolies, and our direct competitor was owned by one of the largest industrial corporations in the world. As a new entrant, DISH encountered many skeptics who questioned our ability to succeed. But, customers loved the disruption we brought to the marketplace with innovations such as a 100-percent digital experience, local-into-local broadcast, the DVR and ad-skipping. Our substantial investments, constant innovation, aggressive pricing and commitment to the customer led us to become the third largest pay-TV provider. As we enter the wireless business, we will again serve customers by disrupting incumbents and their legacy networks, this time with the nation's first standalone 5G broadband network."

All that said, one thing is clear: Dish definitely faces an uphill climb in wireless.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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