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Dish marks progress on 5G network build

Dish Network is making progress on its one-of-a-kind open radio access network (RAN) in the U.S., and Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said “we’re just going to go do it,” rather than try to convince skeptics about what they’re doing.

Dish needs to get through the RF planning, permitting and site acquisition processes and the actual installation of gear like antennas, but it’s still looking to launch one market before the end of the year. Dish is supposed to build a 5G network that covers 70% of the U.S. population by June 2023.

There’s nothing technically that prevents it from building the network and it’s got a good team to execute, according to Ergen. The company has said it expects the network build to cost about $10 billion, and it hasn’t changed that guidance.   

“There’s nothing that stops us from building … the best network in the United States,” Ergen said during the company’s second-quarter earnings call on Friday. There’s no law of physics or technology; “it’s really execution… We’re not reinventing anything,” but it is using more modern technology.

“We’re just going to go do it. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, externally, because everybody’s going to be skeptical” until it’s time to light it up, and then people will have their opinions about it, he said. Dish has announced several vendors and will be selecting more before all is said and done. VMware will provide its telco cloud platform and Altiostar, Fujitsu and Mavenir are also on board to help deploy its 5G standalone (SA) network using cloud-native, open RAN architecture.

Dish officially entered the wireless retail space on July 1 when it closed a $1.4 billion deal to acquire prepaid brand Boost Mobile from T-Mobile, with around 9 million subscribers. Earlier this week, it announced the acquisition of most of Ting Mobile’s subscribers (PDF) and the decision to use Ting-parent Tucows' Mobile Services Enabler (MSE) solutions.

For the time being, Dish is using T-Mobile’s network in an MVNO arrangement to serve Boost prepaid customers, but eventually it will benefit by owner’s economics when it can serve customers using its own 5G network. It’s currently having conversations with tower companies, including the three biggest public companies and second-tier vendors.

While Dish is marking progress, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said in a research note for investors on Friday that another quarter went by without much to say about Dish’s wireless business.

“They still haven’t started materially building,” he said. “And they still haven’t found a strategic partner. They still haven’t gone to the capital markets for financing. And they still haven’t changed their capex guidance for wireless for this year— a paltry $250 to $500M, excluding capitalized interest. Nor have they changed their longer term guidance of $10B to build a virtualized network, a number that we no longer have to caveat by saying we don’t believe.”

Dish & C-band auction

New Street Research analysts expect Dish will bid in the C-band auction in addition to the CBRS auction that’s currently happening. Moreover, “we don’t think they will be bidding just to drive up prices and annoy the other market participants; we think they will be bidding to win,” wrote analyst Jonathan Chaplin.

In analyzing the CBRS and C-band auctions, New Street expects Dish to spend $6 billion, mostly on C-band licenses. “We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them spend more; it will all come down to whether they can find the funding. We expect they will have an anchor tenant locked in for the network by the time the C-band auction kicks off; that tenant or partner will have a strong interest in seeing Dish win more licenses; whether they fund Dish directly, or DISH raises capital in the public markets, we suspect they will have the capital they need to bid and win by the time the auction wraps up.”

Ergen was mostly non-committal about the C-band when asked about it during the company’s earnings call.

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