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Dish’s 5G put to the test in Twin Cities area

Dish Wireless often gets slammed when compared to the Big 3 – or isn’t even included in network benchmark tests. But a new report by Signals Research Group (SRG) has some flattering words to describe the fledgling network.

SRG President Mike Thelander compared Dish’s 5G network and T-Mobile’s network in the Twin Cities area and concluded there are some “obvious advantages” to having a Dish Wireless subscription.

For one, a “measly $26 per month” pays for unlimited data and so far for Thelander, there’s no data throttling above a certain threshold.

For another, “the Dish Wireless 5G network coverage is pretty decent, as shown in an earlier Signals Flash report, and with 45+ MHz of aggregate channel bandwidth in the downlink, the user experience is very good, especially when no one else is using the network,” the report said.

That begs the question: Isn’t the experience good because so few people are on Dish’s network? “That definitely factors into it, but with the testing we do, we take that into consideration,” Thelander told Fierce.

SRG does something called resource block (RB) normalization, where “you can look at the performance and basically adjust it for the channel bandwidth,” or the width of the channels, and how many network resources, or RBs, the phone is getting assigned, he said. “That basically takes into consideration the differences in loading between networks.”

Looking at it from the perspective of an operator with a modest amount of spectrum, SRG’s tests found that Dish makes the most efficient use of spectrum, but Thelander added that in this case, it’s Dish’s implementation of vendor Samsung’s equipment that wins the accolades.

“I can say yes, Dish has better uplink performance, but that was helped by narrower radio channels,” which tends to deliver a better experience, he added.

It should be noted the report points out that T-Mobile has a denser cell grid than Dish Wireless. If the analysis had included T-Mobile’s Band n41, “we believe its spectral efficiency would have been better than all other bands we tested in this study,” the report said.

The purpose of the study was to compare the network efficiencies at similar spectrum bands and “Dish came out on top in the areas where I tested,” Thelander said. The tests compared T-Mobile’s use of Band n25, which is basically 2 GHz, and Dish’s Band 70, also equates to around 2 GHz, he said.

Dish makes a lot of hay about the fact its network is based on open RAN, but the study didn’t take that into account. Where he tested, “it’s Samsung end to end,” from centralized units (CU) and distributed units (DU) to the radio units (RU), he said.  

Standalone vs. Non-standalone

The other aspect of the study was looking at standalone (SA) versus non-standalone (NSA). The NSA version of 5G relies on LTE for an anchor, but the SA version does not. Dish doesn’t have an LTE network of its own to fall back onto, so it uses MVNO agreements with AT&T and T-Mobile to fill in spots for its home-grown SA network.

T-Mobile was first to launch nationwide 5G SA, which is where most operators are headed to get the biggest bang out of their 5G bucks. In SRG’s tests, the SA networks provided lower latency and better performance than NSA.

“If you force the Dish phone to operate in non-standalone mode, it can’t use Dish because they don’t have it, so it automatically defaults to another operator, which in this case was T-Mobile,” Thelander explained. “I’m really comparing Dish standalone and T-Mobile standalone to T-Mobile non-standalone because in that case, both phones were using the T-Mobile network.”

According to the report, “the distribution of latency results favored the T-Mobile SA network over the Dish Wireless SA network,” with all the nitty gritty details shared in SGR’s full report, which is available for $1,350.

It’s worth noting that the tests involved data; voice calls were not part of this exercise. Dish has been expanding its Voice over New Radio (VoNR) footprint, but Thelander said he doesn’t believe it’s currently available where he lives, which is a rural area west of Minneapolis.  

Playing 2nd fiddle

The illustration on the cover of SRG’s special preview edition of the full report depicts a caricature of Dish founder and EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen playing the fiddle, which is a reference to the downside of being a Dish subscriber, Thelander said.

When a call falls back to T-Mobile or AT&T, “you’re basically playing second fiddle to the other operators’ subscribers. You’re getting a lower priority. Anytime you have congestion on the network, you’re getting fewer network resources,” he said.

In the SRG testing, when a Dish phone was forced to run on the T-Mobile network, the T-Mobile network would “blow away” the MVNO, which in this case is Dish, he said.

In other words, if there’s a lot of traffic, the MVNO gets lower priority. “I guess the good side is 5G networks today are generally not loaded, so you’re less likely to incur that situation,” he said.

The marketing conundrum

Thelander said he’s been a Dish subscriber since the end of September and pays $26/month for unlimited data for a Motorola phone that was purchased via the Project Genesis website. From a local Boost Mobile store, they also bought two Samsung Galaxy S23 smartphones with a “Rainbow SIM” that works on AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

Other analysts have opined about Dish’s lack of marketing for its Boost services. Ergen himself addressed the shortfall in Dish’s third-quarter 2023 earnings call. Thelander seems to be joining the chorus.

“It just boggles the mind why Dish has arguably a pretty good network – at an affordable price – and they’re doing nothing to sell services,” he said. “I can understand early on, if it’s not optimized, they don’t want you to have a bad experience.”

But now, “it works fine,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s as good as the other networks, but when you’re paying $26 a month, why not? There’s definitely a market out there for people who would be more than satisfied, especially if they’re saving some money.”

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