Dish’s Ergen could spend $10B to build 50,000 towers for 5G

Dish Network Charlie Ergen (Mike Dano / FierceWireless)
Dish's Charlie Ergen in May put a $10 billion price tag on a 5G network. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen continues to beat the 5G drum, telling an investor conference that the company could spend up to $10 billion to build 50,000 towers in its efforts to launch a 5G network.

“At our conference, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen sounded a bullish tone on the ‘paradigm shift’ 5G presented, and outlined the business case for its planned 5G build utilizing ~100MHz of its owned spectrum,” wrote the analysts at Wall Street firm Deutsche Bank Research in a note to investors. “Ergen ‘was steadfast in expressing his enthusiasm toward building a 'real' 5G network’, and ‘reiterated that the cost to build the nationwide 5G network would be about $10bn.’ Perhaps most importantly, a 5G build (and executing the vision) appears to be the clear Plan A for DISH, and a spectrum sale appears like more of a Plan B. Commentary indicates that beyond the initial IOT-centric build, the 5G network plan relies heavily on macro towers, utilizing an estimated 50,000 sites (for context, Sprint is just shy of 50k sites, TMUS/VZ are in the 60k range each, and T is closer to 70k).”

The analysts continued: “While we do not take a view on the likelihood of a build vs. sale (and do not have this factored into our Tower forecasts), we believe the prevailing narrative from DISH in upcoming months will be more centered around an organic 5G buildout, relative to a potential sale. We view this as a clear positive for Tower companies, with CCI (Buy) and SBAC (Hold) most impacted, and AMT (Buy) to a meaningful, but relatively lower extent.”

Dish in February said it will spend between $500 million and $1 billion through 2020 building out the “first phase” of its wireless network. The company said it would deploy an NB-IoT network initially and would potentially build out a 5G network later as standards for that network are made available.

And in May, Ergen put a price tag on that full 5G network: $10 billion.

Dish has spent roughly $20 billion over the past decade amassing a significant spectrum portfolio stretching from 600 MHz to AWS-4. The company today owns roughly 95 MHz of low- and midband spectrum, according to the Wall Street analysts at Cowen, which valued those holdings at about $30.2 billion.

Most analysts expected the company to eventually sell those spectrum holdings to a major wireless network operator; Verizon was often fingered as a possible buyer due to its relatively paltry spectrum holdings compared to its massive customer base.

But Verizon appears to have shifted its spectrum desires to the millimeter-wave band—the operator spent $3.1 billion last year for Straight Path’s millimeter-spectrum holdings while sitting on the sidelines of the recent 600 MHz spectrum auction.

Meantime, Ergen’s Dish holds almost 100 MHz of spectrum that must be put to use, or Ergen risks losing the licenses due to the FCC’s build-out rules.

Thus, it appears Ergen is moving full-steam ahead with his network build-out plans. Already Dish executives have said the company is engaging with tower owners and equipment suppliers for its planned NB-IoT network buildout. That network could satisfy the FCC’s build-out requirements as Dish works to move to 5G technology.