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Dish's June 14 deadline for 5G begins to loom large

Dish Network is required by the federal government to cover 20% of the US population with 5G by June 14, 2022. That's just over one month from today.

It's unclear whether the company will hit its coverage mandates. However, recent commentary from executives at some of the nation's biggest cell tower owners indicates that Dish is indeed working toward its goal.

"They're very active, actually busier with us than we thought they would be for a rolling 12-month period. And they continue to be very, very busy and driving hard," said Jeffrey Stoops, CEO of SBA Communications, during his company's quarterly conference call this week, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. SBA is one of the biggest cell tower operators in the US.

Other executives in the cell tower industry agree.

"We have obviously seen a significant commitment from them as they've committed to go on 20,000 of our towers nationwide. So in terms of behavior, that's a significant number of our sites, nearly half the sites that we have in the US, they have a commitment to go on. So that's significant in terms of the scale of the commitment that they've made," said Crown Castle CEO Jay Brown during his company's quarterly conference call last week, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

"And then, as we look at the activity that we're working on them with, they're certainly behaving as a company that we would expect would get to nationwide coverage," he added. "So it's been a really long time in the US since there has been a new nationwide deployment of a network from scratch and the activity that we're seeing from Dish is consistent with their desire to build out nationwide."

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)

But so far, Dish has not launched commercial 5G service anywhere in the country – which represents a significant delay from the company's original plans to launch 5G in several US cities by the end of 2021.

Pointing fingers

Dish officials addressed the situation during the company's most recent quarterly conference call in February.

"We're six months behind where we thought we'd be. It's my fault. We just didn't maybe anticipate that we would have to do as much on the technical side," said Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

Ergen said there are a number of factors at play, including the difficulties involved in implementing Voice over NR (pronounced "voner"). The technology – which transmits voice calls over 5G – is scheduled to go live on China Mobile next month.

Ergen also said Dish is working to organize its 5G operations under John Swieringa, a longtime Dish executive who was named the COO of Dish Wireless in January. "We've made improvements in terms of how we're structured," Ergen said of Swieringa's appointment.

Finally: "I think that ultimately, we found that we had to become the system integrator. It wasn't a role that we thought we're going to take on. But with all the vendors, somebody has got to be the middleman between there and the glue that holds them together, and we're much more involved in that than maybe we thought we were going to be. So a lot of lessons learned there," Ergen said.

Nonetheless, Ergen touted the savings Dish is enjoying thanks to the open RAN network design it's employing. That design, he said, includes the radios atop Dish's cell towers and the cloud computing powering its software-driven operations, and not much else. He said Dish spent $1 billion in capital expenses (capex) on its network last year, and will spend around $2.5 billion this year.

To put that figure into context, T-Mobile spent $2.9 billion in just three months on its own 5G network. That spending, on "cash purchases of property and equipment" including 5G, covered T-Mobile's 5G network upgrade program during its fourth quarter. T-Mobile and Dish are similar in that neither operates an extensive wired network, unlike AT&T and Verizon.

Turning to Vegas

Nonetheless, Dish continues to tease its forthcoming services. "Thanks for your interest in Project Genesis!" according to a recent email sent to registrants of the company's Project Genesis website. "Right now, our beta program is only available in Las Vegas. We'll let you know when you can join in your city, so stay tuned for more information."

Dish has scheduled a major analyst event for May 10 in Las Vegas. It's likely the company will use the four-hour gathering to convince investors that it's serious about its 5G business and that it can be successful in the space.

And there's plenty of impetus for Dish to do so, beyond investor sentiment. Under its 2019 agreement with the US Department of Justice, Dish will be fined $16 million for each frequency band that misses its June 14 population coverage targets by 25% or less, $32 million for each frequency band that misses the population goal by 25-50%, $48 million for each frequency band that misses the population goal by 50-75%, and $66 million for each frequency band that misses the population goal by more than 75%. Those fines could ultimately total $2.2 billion.

Dish famously operates a countdown clock at its Denver headquarters, showing how much time it has left to build its wireless network. The countdown is almost finished.

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

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