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5G

Network sharing deal between AT&T, Dish is unlikely, but possible – analysts

Following the conclusion of the FCC's last big midband spectrum auction for 5G earlier this year, some analysts still hold open the possibility that the nation's third and fourth 5G network operators – AT&T and Dish Network – might form some type of network-sharing agreement.

However, they said that such a deal remains feasible but improbable.

"In terms of good, old-fashioned network sharing between Dish and AT&T ... that still seems unlikely," wrote analyst John Byrne, of research and consulting firm GlobalData, in response to questions from Light Reading. "I think they all view Dish's retail ambitions somewhat warily."

Others mostly agree.

"I think AT&T will be very strategic," said Sasha Javid, chief operating officer at BitPath, in comments earlier this year to Light Reading. Javid carefully follows US operators' spectrum strategies. He suggested that the $9 billion AT&T spent in the FCC's 3.45GHz spectrum auction earlier this year "would lessen the need for AT&T to leverage Dish's spectrum."

The other side

However, there are others who don't have the same view. For example, Walter Piecyk with financial analyst firm LightShed Partners speculated earlier this year that AT&T and Dish have mostly complementary spectrum holdings, following the close of the FCC's most recent spectrum auction. He suggested that a network-sharing deal between the two companies "could make a lot of sense."

Piecyk isn't alone. "Some have pointed out that AT&T and Dish's 3.45GHz holdings could be deployed jointly and shared given the holdings are largely adjacent and given the closer working relationship between the companies since entering into a new MVNO," wrote the analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors earlier this year. "Combining 3.45GHz portfolios would benefit both."

The New Street analysts also noted that a combined AT&T/Dish 5G network could benefit from the L-band spectrum currently owned by Ligado.

Indeed, GlobalData's Byrne speculated that Dish could shift closer to some kind of deal with AT&T after it hits its government-mandated 5G network buildout targets. "I could see a scenario in which ... they conclude it's better to extend their coverage by extending their agreement with AT&T," he wrote. "Granted, this is all pure speculation."

The AT&T and Dish deal

Speculation around some kind of a sharing deal between AT&T and Dish stems from the companies' initial partnership that was inked in July of last year. The deal contained a relatively standard MVNO agreement – allowing Dish to activate new Boost Mobile customers on AT&T's network – as well as a tantalizing networking element. The agreement "provides an avenue for AT&T to deploy portions of Dish's spectrum to support Dish customers on the AT&T network, by allowing AT&T the right, but not the obligation, to request to use portions of Dish's spectrum in different markets for an agreed upon period of time, subject to certain terms and conditions," according to the companies' SEC filing at the time.

Speaking last year after the AT&T deal was announced, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said that the language essentially paves the way for further conversations between Dish and AT&T. "Those things aren't settled yet. I think it depends on how the relationship goes," he said.

Moreover, Ergen and other Dish executives have remained very open to the notion of sharing the cost of a network buildout with other partners. "I think you're going to start to see more of that sharing, because the capital costs are so great and if you can do that and build a better product I think the consumer wins," Ergen said last year.

However, any network-sharing deal likely would require new agreements with tower companies. "Our leases prohibit network sharing," explained Jay Brown, CEO of cell tower giant Crown Castle, last year. He left open the possibility of negotiations that would allow for sharing.

The Dish Wireless logo on the doors inside the company's headquarters. 
 (Source: Dish)
The Dish Wireless logo on the doors inside the company's headquarters.
(Source: Dish)

To be clear, the terms of Dish's 2019 agreement with the US Department of Justice and T-Mobile appear to forestall any kind of network-sharing agreement, at least on the spectrum bands covered by the contract. "Dish has also committed to offer 5G broadband service to certain population coverage targets, along with minimum core network, tower and spectrum use targets," according to Dish's 2019 SEC filing on that deal.

Overtaken by recent events

But Dish's newer spectrum purchases are not covered by the 2019 deal. Dish bought roughly $912 million worth of CBRS spectrum licenses in 2020 and $7.3 billion worth of spectrum in the FCC's Auction 110 earlier this year (Light Reading has been calling this the "Andromeda auction" because it sounds cool).

So far, Dish has offered no indications about how it might build out those spectrum licenses.

However, AT&T has. The operator recently said that it would not meet its goal of covering 70 to 75 million people with the C-band spectrum by the end of 2022. Instead, AT&T's new goal is to cover 200 million people with a mixture of C-band and Andromeda spectrum by the end of next year.

Whether AT&T might work with Dish in some capacity on this project, or a future one, remains to be seen. AT&T just last week officially shed its WarnerMedia content division. But it's worth noting that the importance of the MVNO agreement between Dish and AT&T seems to be fading, considering that T-Mobile recently inked a new MVNO agreement with Dish. That new MVNO agreement is being reviewed by the US Department of Justice.

To be clear, there is some precedent for network-construction deals among US wireless operators. For example, AT&T is building out 700MHz spectrum nationwide via its partnership with FirstNet. Further, other, smaller providers including Viaero and ATN International are also handling parts of that build.

Separately, Sprint inked an innovative infrastructure-sharing agreement with cable company Altice just months before it agreed to a massive merger with T-Mobile. AT&T and Sprint are among the operators that have inked offloading agreements with WiFi provider Boingo. Verizon's rural LTE buildout program involved the operator providing technical support and resources – including potential spectrum leases – to help independent rural wireless network operators build out 4G LTE networks that Verizon customers could then use.

Related posts:

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

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