Ergen’s 5G build-out ambitions for Dish could pass $10B

Dish Network's Charlie Ergen (left) speaks with former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell at the WIA's recent Connect (X) trade show. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen said that the company’s nationwide NB-IoT wireless network will be the first phase of the company’s entry into the wireless industry. Ultimately, he said the company may need $10 billion to build a full-blown 5G network that will support IoT applications like smart cities, autonomous cars, artificial intelligence and other high-tech services.

“We’re now going to spend at least $10 billion or more on a 5G network. We don’t have that kind of capital on our balance sheet today,” Ergen admitted. But he said that Dish plans to operate like a startup in the wireless industry, much like it did when it entered the satellite TV business several decades ago, in its drive to cash in on 5G.

And Ergen said Dish has one advantage over the market’s existing wireless players like AT&T and Verizon: “We have a clean sheet of paper,” he said, explaining that Dish will enter the 5G wireless market without legacy 2G, 3G and 4G operations. That, he said, will allow Dish to architect its network with virtualization, network slices and low latency specifically designed for IoT products and services.

Ergen said that today’s wireless networks are designed for the roughly 300 million smartphone users in the country. “The future is going to be 300 billion things,” he said.

“In technology, it’s all about timing,” Ergen explained. He said that Dish has exactly 654 days to build out its H Block spectrum to meet the FCC’s spectrum license build-out requirements. He said Dish is using its available spectrum to initially build out an NB-IoT network because the standard for that technology is available from the 3GPP, but he said Dish will pivot to the 5G standard when it becomes available.

Dish has said it will devote between $500 million to $1 billion through 2020 for its initial NB-IoT build-out.

“We’re playing the hand that was dealt to us,” Ergen said, pointing to the spectrum that Dish currently owns as well as its 600 MHz licenses that aren’t available because TV broadcasters haven’t yet vacated those airwaves.

Ergen, in his comments here at the WIA’s Connect (X) trade show, said that the company is currently working with vendors and site providers to begin its initial NB-IoT network buildout.

Ergen said he was excited to embark on Dish’s venture into the wireless industry, noting that “for me, it’s not a job. … It’s not going to change my standard of living. It’s like a hobby—you get up every morning excited about it.”

Ergen also added that Dish is going to work with partners in order to understand the process of deploying a wireless network. “We’re going to go build something that we don’t have much knowledge about,” he said. “We have a lot of lessons to learn as a company.”

“This is a startup business for us,” he added. “That’s exciting.”

But Ergen said that the opportunity the company is targeting—he mentioned industries ranging from agriculture to healthcare that Dish will target with 5G—is a significant one, and he said Dish has a corporate history of taking big bets on big opportunities.

“We’re one of the few companies that can think long term,” he said, noting that Dish doesn’t have a clear, Wall Street-style 5-year calculation from where it is now in wireless to a clear return on investment. But he said he believes the 5G IoT opportunity is significant enough to warrant Dish’s efforts.

“We’re confident,” he said. “I don’t think we’re cocky or arrogant about it.”