Dish Network's Ergen hints at interest in network sharing

Dish Network's Charlie Ergen reiterated his openness to sharing network infrastructure with AT&T or another company, indicating such efforts could reduce overall expenses for both parties.

"We see that in Canada, where people share networks, we see that in the UK. We're starting to see where the [US] government shares frequencies now," Ergen said during an interview at the TPI Aspen Forum. "So 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."

And he suggested that Dish and AT&T could engage in that kind of an effort for their 700MHz spectrum licenses. He described the companies' respective 700MHz holdings as "mirror images" of each other.

"Maybe you both don't have to build that out. Maybe you can share some infrastructure cost," he suggested.

Baby steps

However, Ergen made it clear that Dish's initial agreement with AT&T covers MVNO access to the company's network, and does not yet include any network-sharing components. "Those things aren't settled yet. I think it depends on how the relationship goes," he said.

This isn't the first time Ergen has hinted at sharing networks.

"There might be some interesting things you could do there and save some – and get scale and save cost if companies are so inclined," Ergen said during his company's recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. He was responding to a question about the contours of Dish's new relationship with AT&T.

AT&T isn't the only operator Dish might consider as a network-sharing partner.

"We've talked to a number of regional and rural operators about how do we do things," Dish EVP Stephen Bye said during the call. "How do you do it in a capital-efficient way that both parties benefit. So, we have a number of those conversations."

However, some cell tower owners have made it clear that any network-sharing deal would require a renegotiated tower-rental contract.

"Our leases prohibit network sharing," explained Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown during his company's recent quarterly conference call. "The carriers, as we contract with them, they have the right to use their spectrum for their own use and for their own network."

But Brown left open the option for some kind of deal. "Certainly [we would] be open to entertaining that conversation," he said of network sharing. "But I think it would come with additional revenues as it's not permitted currently."

Moves toward sharing

Nonetheless, Ergen's comments around network sharing represent another tentative step toward the concept in the US.

US operators have already made some moves forward on the topic. For example, they've mostly all sold off their cell towers to the likes of SBA Communications and American Tower, and now they often share space with each other on towers typically owned by third parties. Further, operators routinely ink reciprocal roaming agreements with bigger or smaller rivals in locations where they don't own their own networks.

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

Finally, the US government continues to favor policies that would share spectrum between federal and commercial interests.

But some in the industry have called for more explicit network sharing. "Sharing network infrastructure in order to better allocate capital and thus expand service to more people is not a radical idea," wrote Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the FCC under President Obama, in a 2018 post to the Brookings Institution blog, where he is now a visiting fellow. "Rental car companies share the same facilities at airports, for instance. The cars the companies rent are the same, and their rental counters are right next to each other under the same roof. Rental car competition is enhanced, however, by the sharing of costs of a common infrastructure."

Whether Dish's Ergen embarks on that kind of sharing remains to be seen. It's also worth noting that Ergen would have to still address government network-buildout requirements that call for Dish to cover 70% of the US population by 2025.

During his comments at the TPI Aspen Forum, Ergen addressed a few other hot topics:

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

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