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Dish's 5G mobile beta gets rolling in Las Vegas

Dish Network's delayed 5G service beta trial in Las Vegas is underway with an unspecified number of employees and other "friendly" users.

Dish is focused on getting the radio software and the core network software to work well together reliably. Meanwhile, the company is also working through some T-Mobile roaming and handover issues there. Dish has not yet set up roaming with AT&T through a broader deal announced in July that will make AT&T Dish's primary network services partner for MVNO customers.

"Vegas is, I'd say, coming along," Dave Mayo, Dish's EVP of network development, said Thursday on the company's Q3 2021 earnings call. He said the Las Vegas test network has been in a pre-production environment until fairly recently.

"We'll progress that over the next 90 days and look forward to launching in Vegas sometime in the first quarter of 2022," Mayo said.

Charlie Ergen, Dish's chairman, said beta users are providing feedback on the network and that Dish is adding more load on the system as it's made more stable. He said certain attendees of the AWS re:Invent conference (November 29 to December 3) in Las Vegas might have an opportunity to try out Dish's mobile handiwork.

Some analysts aren't putting much weight into the Las Vegas trial, holding that it remains difficult to place a serious valuation on Dish's emerging wireless business.

"Vegas beta? Nothing important, in all likelihood, other than 'yes, the equipment seems to work,' " Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson, explained in research note issued after Dish announced earnings.

Tied to its FCC requirement to have 20% of the US population covered by June 2022, Dish now has construction activity underway in 42 markets, with building permits salted away for two thirds of them.

Mayo said Dish is "making great strides" with respect to leasing and permitting activities for deployments associated with a requirement that Dish have 70% of the US population covered by June 2023.

Mobile-related capex has ramped up ($281 million in Q3) and will continue to do so through Q1 2022. Thereafter, Mayo expects that spending to reach a "steady state" and flatten out until 2023.

While consumer services tie into Dish's future 5G network, execs said the company is also making progress with enterprise-class mobile services. Dish has both wholesale and enterprise activities lined up, according to Stephen Bye, EVP and chief commercial officer of Dish's facilities-based wireless network business.

Bye said Dish won't need a national footprint to kick off that strategy, citing opportunities for niche products that can be offered at the local or regional level. That part of the business isn't expected to become material until 2023, he said.

Opex vs. capex

Dish continued to hold firm that it will cost $10 billion in capital expenditures to build its 5G network. In its quarterly report, Dish also referenced "other long-term obligations," which include minimum payments tied to tower obligations, that stand at about $13.6 billion.

Charlie Ergen, Dish's chairman, said those tower lease commitments are operational expenses that fall outside of the $10 billion capital expenditures slated for the company's 5G network. Those tower obligations also run for 20 years or more and, in some instances, have revenues associated with them, he added.

Ergen continued to rail against T-Mobile's planned CDMA shutdown, which has been extended to March 31, 2022. Despite that extension, he views the move as "anti-consumer."

Dish, which now runs the former Sprint Boost business, expects to have more than 1 million mobile customers on that network by that deadline.

"It just seems the wrong thing to do," Ergen said of the updated timing. "We're not against the CDMA shutdown. We believe technology needs to advance, but you can't do it on the back of customers … We'll continue to go as fast as we can. I'm disappointed in T-Mobile; I wish they'd taken a little bit longer term approach to it."

Dish's retail wireless business lost 121,000 subs, better than the -178,000 expected by analysts. Dish ended and ending the period with 8.77 million.

"We would've grown in Q3 if not for some of the supply chain issues as well as some of the headwinds from CDMA," John Swieringa, group president of retail wireless, and COO at Dish, said.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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