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Four key observations from Dish's 5G launch

Dish Network last week commercially launched 5G services in more than 100 US cities, a move the company said satisfies its federal network coverage requirements for 2022.

Though the launch came and went with relatively little fanfare, it nonetheless helps to address years of persistent criticism that Dish does not have the corporate wherewithal to become a fourth nationwide wireless provider in the US.

"You have to give them a lot of credit for it, because there are a lot of firsts that they did," said analyst Roger Entner, with Recon Analytics, on his weekly podcast. Entner explained that Dish claims to have the world's first broadly available, standalone, open RAN 5G network – without a supporting 4G network.

The main points of Dish's launch are relatively well known: The company's 5G network covers around 20% of the US population, it costs $30 per month and it's available via Dish's Project Genesis website. But the details surrounding the launch also help provide a clearer picture.

As the dust settles on Dish's service launch, here are four assumptions on the company's corporate trajectory, based on the details and research released around its launch:

Dish has spent around $2 billion to cover 4% of the US with 5G.

According to a detailed report on Dish from the financial analysts at New Street Research, the company has spent a total of around $2 billion on its 5G network so far – a relatively astounding figure considering that T-Mobile spent $3 billion on its own network just during the first three months of 2022.

However, the New Street analysts estimate that Dish's 5G network covers just 125,000 square miles, or 4% of the US. "This is a relatively trivial target, requiring less than 4,000 cell sites," wrote the analysts, equating the deployment to covering the state of New Mexico.

According to the analysts' estimates, Dish will need to spend another $10 billion to build around 33,000 total cell sites by 2025 to meet its US government-mandated 5G coverage requirements for that year.

Dish Network chief Charlie Ergen is betting his company's future on 5G. (Source: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)
Dish Network chief Charlie Ergen is betting his company's future on 5G.
(Source: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)

"This equates to just 31% of the US land area, and is still a fraction of the area covered by the three national carriers (AT&T covers 77%)," the analysts wrote of Dish's 2025 coverage requirements. "For context, this would be equivalent to adding the area of Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado and Utah."

Dish's roaming agreements with AT&T and T-Mobile are clutch.

Dish inked a major roaming agreement with AT&T last year and earlier this year, it inked a new roaming agreement with T-Mobile. Those agreements effectively provide Dish with the ability to offer nationwide coverage immediately as it works to build out its network.

The company said its network coverage is unique in the US: "Supported by a network of networks, the Galaxy S22 [smartphone for Dish's network] seamlessly switches between networks providing Dish customers with voice and data services from multiple networks at any location and at any point in time. This solution takes advantage of eSIM and multi-SIM technologies," the company wrote in a release, pointing to its early emphasis on eSIM technologies.

Dish's approach to roaming appears similar to Google's early efforts in the mobile space. The company's Google Fi MVNO seamlessly switches among networks including Wi-Fi, T-Mobile and UScellular.

Moreover, a Dish official confirmed to Light Reading that the company's Project Genesis customers get unlimited talk, text and data for $30 per month whether they're on Dish's network or one of its "partner" networks.

However, in its terms and conditions, the company warns that "our right to provide coverage on another carrier's network may change from time to time, and roaming coverage may change without notice and may not always be available." That language likely points to Dish's interest in owning its own network.

Dish faces a device problem.

As reported by PCMag, Dish's Project Genesis markets will use spectrum Bands 71 (for range) and 66 (for speed). The company's Galaxy S22, from Samsung, doesn't support Dish's unique Band 70 spectrum band, but "devices will become available throughout this year, including devices supporting Bands 70 and 29," according to a Dish representative.

Dish continues to collect even more spectrum, having recently purchased 3.5GHz CBRS and 3.45GHz Andromeda licenses.

The situation highlights Dish's oddball collection of spectrum bands. The company is now working to solicit support from device makers for its unique collection of spectrum – a stumbling block that will likely take Dish years to fully address.

So far, Dish has rounded up support from phone makers Samsung and Motorola, but Apple remains conspicuous in its absence. That's important considering that the company's iPhone commands half of the US smartphone market, according to figures from Counterpoint Research.

"[Apple has] provided great support to Dish's other mobile services over the years and we expect that collaboration to only grow," a Dish spokesperson told PCMag.

However, the situation creates potentially even more challenges to Dish's broader efforts to sell services to enterprises. Industrial equipment makers are relatively slow to embrace new wireless spectrum bands and transmission protocols, and it's unclear whether such companies might build products that would represent a bet on Dish's ambitions to sell 5G to US businesses.

Can Dish be successful in the long term?

Dish's overall 5G strategy is relatively straightforward. It will use its existing satellite TV business to finance its 5G ambitions. As it builds its 5G network, it will rely on AT&T and T-Mobile to offer services in areas where it cannot.

On the consumer side, Dish hopes to eventually grow its Boost Mobile brand from around 8 million customers today to up to 40 million at some unspecified point in the future, in part through aggressive pricing strategies. Boost officials are planning to offer postpaid wireless service plans under the "Boost Infinite" brand this fall, a launch that could stand as an important indicator for Dish's overall competitive positioning in smartphones.

Then, as Dish works to solidify its consumer story – which today stretches across the Boost, Gen Wireless, Republic Wireless and Ting Mobile brands – the company will look to more lucrative 5G sales to enterprises. The first part of that strategy will center on private wireless 5G offerings.

Both Dish's consumer and enterprise efforts face serious obstacles. On the consumer side, the company will face cable and wireless companies that are today offering increasingly competitive pricing plans as the pool of available postpaid customers shrinks considerably.

On the enterprise side, Dish will face huge, entrenched providers like AT&T and Verizon with a 5G strategy that many still view with an extremely healthy dose of skepticism. Corporate CIOs will be hard pressed to select Dish – a brand new and untested upstart in the mobile industry – when compared against established incumbents. A longtime enterprise-purchasing truism goes something like: "No one ever got fired for selecting [insert incumbent's name here]."

Even more worrisome, Dish officials have said that the company won't hire its own sales force for the enterprise, and will instead rely on partners to sell its services.

In conclusion

Dish certainly deserves credit for finally turning years and years of spectrum hoarding into a commercial service. But building a network is just the first step. Now Dish has to profit from its network. Whether it can do that remains to be seen.

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

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