Dish Undaunted About Wireless Plans

Jeff Baumgartner
2/13/2019
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Dish Network execs continue to downplay concerns and skepticism about its plans to deploy a narrowband-IoT network and follow with a phase II effort that will result in a standalone 5G network.

Dish is 388 days away from the March 7, 2020 buildout deadline for an NB-IoT network.

"The deployment team is in full swing," Erik Carlson, Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH)'s president and CEO, said on Wednesday's Q4 earnings call. "Crews are working at... staging and installing gear [at] towers across the nation. A lot of work is ahead but progress is definitely mounting."

Dish estimates that its NB-IoT network will cost between $500 million to $1 billion.

"Our expectation is that we'll meet the deadline," Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said, noting that capex is expected to accelerate in 2019 due to the company's wireless activities. "We know there will be a lot of obstacles in the way." He said concerns that Dish's NB-IoT plan might not meet the FCC's buildout requirements for that spectrum are "overblown," holding that Dish's plan checks the right boxes.


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"We're past the point of no return at this point to do something different," Ergen said. "I think the rules are pretty clear in terms of flexible use."

If the FCC is serious about spectrum being put to use, he added, "We would expect that the FCC would at least rule on the current application in front of them. We'd like to know sooner rather than later."

What he's not thrilled about is that the phase I buildout focused on NB-IoT won't be as robust as some existing networks, as Dish will initially be limited by 5MHz of nationwide upstream spectrum. Other spectrum is tied up in interference studies and the 600MHz capacity won't be cleared until June, and could go on longer if the broadcasters ask for more time.

"It's more difficult to plan for something that we don't control at this point," he said.

Dish, though, has gotten some static from T-Mobile US Inc. on the technical feasibility of that plan, arguing that Dish would need to erect many 2,000-foot-tall towers to achieve an anticipated coverage radius of 62 miles per tower. T-Mobile also contends that Dish will use a small piece of its capacity and is hoarding spectrum as it tries to find buyers for some of its holdings. (See T-Mobile's Legere Calls Dish a Spectrum Hoarder.)

"Whether the FCC will deem a transparently unusable network to a satisfactory solution to the March 2020 buildout requirement is unclear," Craig Moffett, analyst with MoffettNathanson LLC , said in a research note. "We honestly have no idea whatsoever what (or when) the FCC will decide." Moffett has previously stressed that Dish's window on a spectrum sale is closed. (See Dish's Window to Sell Spectrum Has Closed, Analyst Says .)

Expects to have standards-based 5G gear in-hand in 2020
Dish is also focused on a standalone 5G network that's expected to cost in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Dish is in the process of architecting it and wrapping a business plan around it.

Ergen said that network will help the US in the 5G race. "If we really want to compete with China in 5G, in my opinion you need a standalone 5G network from scratch," Ergen said.

But he warned that the standards for that are still being ironed out, but offered a guess on when Dish might have equipment in-hand. "I would imagine... in a little bit over a year from now we'll start to have equipment in standalone 5G that we can start deploying," Ergen predicted.

As for that $10 billion price tag, Ergen said that Dish will need to raise capital, but acknowledged that the company has not been definitive with respect to those sources of funding. That came up when Ergen was asked if Dish might try to borrow money against its spectrum for the 5G network initiative.

Ergen also said there's been some partnership interest coming from "unexpected places," but didn't elaborate beyond saying it could come from those with infrastructure that Dish will need for 5G.

"We're probably not going to build towers and we're probably not going to lay a bunch of fiber," he said. Edge compute is also not a business that Dish expects to enter.

"We want this country to lead in 5G. and I think we're going to play a big part in that," Ergen said.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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