Dish's Charlie Ergen sees 'opportunity for fixed wireless in rural America'

Dish Network is plowing ahead with a mobile business focused on consumer and business customers, but the company is evidently leaving the door open to possibly providing fixed wireless access (FWA) services on its various spectrum holdings.

That idea comes about with an assumption that consumers in rural areas all want broadband, but fewer and fewer of them might opt for traditional satellite-delivered pay-TV.

'I think there's greater upside in fixed wireless than the loss ... the bleed you might have in linear TV,' said Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen.  

(Source: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)
"I think there's greater upside in fixed wireless than the loss ... the bleed you might have in linear TV," said Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen.
(Source: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)

"We think there's certainly an opportunity for fixed wireless in rural America," Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said Friday on the company's Q1 2022 earnings call.

No specific FWA plans are afoot, but Ergen said Dish is keeping a watchful eye on the fixed wireless successes of T-Mobile and Verizon.

"I think it's very creative in terms of what they're doing [with FWA]," he said. "I think there are maybe other ways to do it, depending on where you are and the densities you have."

Ergen said he's also eager to see how the FCC manages the 12GHz band, calling it an "ideal frequency" for FWA that could support "millions of customers," particularly in rural areas.

"I think there's opportunity there," he said. "I think there's greater upside in fixed wireless than the loss...the bleed you might have in linear TV."

No FCC extension needed for June 2022 5G target

Turning to Dish's 5G network plan, execs are confident that the company is on track to meet the FCC deadline to cover 20% of the US population with 5G by June 14, 2022.

"We don't think we'll need to ask for an extension at this point," Ergen said. He noted that Dish was able to order and get the radios needed before supply chain constraints became an issue, but getting access to backhaul and power – areas not controlled by Dish – is a "different animal."

We want to keep our nose to the grindstone and do what we said we're going to do," Ergen said. "We're just going to get it done...this isn't our first rodeo."

But he acknowledged that Dish doesn't need to deliver a "robust offering" to meet its June 2022 commitment.

"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," Ergen said.

Striking up the band

To compete at a higher level, Ergen said Dish, in part, will need to get devices that support Band 70 (AWS-4) and get access to less expensive phones.

For its initial rollout and "Project Genesis" initiative Las Vegas, Dish is getting off the blocks on devices that aggregate Band 66 and 71, noted John Swieringa, president and COO of Dish Wireless.

Dish has Band 70 devices in the labs now and work is underway with manufactures. The expectation is to launch Band 70-capable devices in late Q3 2022. The FCC has approved two smartphones from Motorola that support Dish's Band 70.

"Our team is working to make that happen and we're confident we'll have Band 70 coming into the portfolio soon," Swieringa said.

"We would guess 'the fall' means they are aiming for inclusion in the next iPhone, which would be a huge win," the analysts at New Street Research surmised in a research note issued after Dish's earnings call.

Meanwhile, Dish views its Las Vegas service launch as its spring board for its broader 5G strategy." 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," Swieringa said. "It's just the start of the race. There's a lot of work to do."

Dish is expected to provide much more detail about its retail wireless plans and strategy at an analyst day set for May 10 in Las Vegas.

As that comes together, Dish's existing Boost business continues to lose customers. The loss of 343,000 wireless subs in Q1 2021, lowering the grand total to 8.2 million, was worse than an expected loss of 181,000. MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett estimates that Dish's wireless base has shrunk by 17.1% since the acquisition was completed in 2020.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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