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Mysteries and revelations abound in Dish's 5G spectrum strategy

For more than a decade, Dish Network has sparked rumor and speculation about what exactly it plans to do with the enormous trove of spectrum it owns. And though the company's plans have grown clearer in recent years amid its early 5G network buildout efforts, there's still much that is not public.

For example, when exactly might big smartphone makers begin supporting the spectrum bands that Dish owns? The company has been working to rally support for its various spectrum bands among device manufacturers for roughly the past year.

Thus, Samsung's release last week of its latest flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S22s, raised the tantalizing possibility that the gadgets might be the first to support Dish's 5G flavors. After all, Samsung is often at the extreme forefront of developing products that support newly released spectrum bands.

However, company officials so far are keeping things mysterious. In responses to questions from Light Reading, a Dish representative said Samsung's new Galaxy S22 phones do support Dish's spectrum bands. However, the representative wouldn't confirm exactly which Dish spectrum bands are supported by the devices.

Similarly, Samsung officials said only that the company's new phones support 4G LTE, Wi-Fi 6E and 5G mmWave and sub-6GHz. "We do not have a [spectrum] band list at this time," the representative noted.

Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra.  (Source: Samsung)
Samsung's Galaxy S22 Ultra.
(Source: Samsung)

Some of the spectrum bands that Dish owns – such as the 3.5GHz CBRS band – are relatively common in newer smartphones. But others – such as Band 70 that covers Dish's AWS-4, H Block and unpaired AWS-3 spectrum licenses – are not.

Last year, Dish Network's Boost Mobile MVNO began selling a mid-range Android phone under its own Celero5G brand. Company officials said future versions of the phone would support all of the spectrum bands that Dish is using to construct its own 5G network.

Insights into 3.45GHz

While Dish's smartphone strategy remains a mystery, one analyst firm offered some revelations about the company's recent spectrum purchases.

Specifically, the financial analysts at New Street Research wrote that Dish's new 3.45GHz-3.55GHz spectrum holdings could be combined with its 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum licenses. That, they said, would explain the company's strange behavior during the FCC's recent Auction 110 of 3.45GHz-3.55GHz spectrum (which Light Reading has dubbed the "Andromeda auction").

According to the analysts, Dish spent almost $500,000 during the "assignment" phase of the auction – far more than what other bidders spent. The "assignment" phase comes after the primary "clock" phase where bidders typically spend most of their money. The assignment phase allows bidders to choose the specific frequencies of spectrum they want in each market where they won licenses during the clock phase.

Most bidders allocate just 1-2% of their spending on the assignment phase, but Dish allocated fully 7% on the phase. "Given its typical financial restraint, this struck us as strange," the analysts wrote.

According to the analysts, Dish did so in order to obtain licenses immediately adjacent to its existing CBRS spectrum holdings. Dish spent almost $1 billion on CBRS licenses in an auction in 2020.

"This suggests Dish will seek to create combined channels across its 30MHz of 3.45GHz spectrum and its 20MHz of CBRS," the analysts wrote. By combining transmissions in those two bands, Dish can dramatically raise the speeds available on its forthcoming midband 5G network, according to the analysts.

"If Dish can aggregate its 3.45GHz and CBRS [spectrum licenses]...into a single 50MHz channel using inter-band carrier aggregation, they should be able to deliver faster speeds," the analysts wrote.

However, they noted Dish will likely have to deploy new network equipment to begin broadcasting 5G signals in its new spectrum bands. Already AT&T has said it plans to begin deploying such equipment for its own 3.45GHz spectrum holdings starting this year.

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

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