Dish’s Ergen on NB-IoT network: ‘You shouldn’t expect that we would make big profits on that on Day One’

graph of Dish's spectrum assets
Dish owns a large amount of spectrum. (Cowen)

Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen didn’t offer many new details on the company’s plan to build a wireless network for the internet of things. He declined to comment on whether Amazon would use the network, he wouldn’t say whether Dish would purchase more spectrum, and he wouldn’t comment on Dish’s possible discussions with Sprint and T-Mobile.

But Ergen did seek to set modest expectations for the company’s initial efforts in the space: “You shouldn’t expect that we would make big profits on that on Day One,” he said today during Dish’s earnings call with investors. “But what it does is it makes the foundation for where things go.”

Ergen explained that Dish’s initial NB-IoT wireless network will set the stage for the company to eventually launch some kind of 5G service. “It’s going to be difficult to size the NB-IoT network because it's kind of the first step you have to get to, to get to a total 5G network, and we're not even able to build the IoT network out in 5G because we had to order radios before the [5G] standard was set,” he said. “And some of the spectrum that we really need still has to be cleared by broadcasters or still has to be cleared by regulated agencies, and that doesn't come online, in 600 [MHz] that doesn't get cleared until 2020. So, we ended up with a little bit of an oddball frequencies that aren't exactly the standard we'd like to use."

Dish announced earlier this year that 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.

Dish’s Tom Cullen, one of the executives charged with building out that NB-IoT network, also provided an update today on Dish’s wireless network buildout efforts. “We've signed dozens of other contracts including master lease agreements with tower companies, chipsets, we're working with deployment companies now, we've signed the core network agreement, and that core is being installed next month,” he said. “We're ramping up the number of internal resources working on it, the RF planning is underway now so that we'll see the results of that sometime by the end of this quarter, and then from there we'll move into site acquisition and permitting. We're expecting to get the first radios in the fall of this year and begin installation late this year and throughout '19.”

Beyond those comments though, Ergen and Cullen declined to answer a variety of questions on Dish’s wireless efforts. Importantly, an analyst from Wells Fargo said that Dish is rumored to be building an IoT network for Amazon that uses 10 MHz of spectrum and will cover fully 40,000 towers. Ergen said only that he had “no comment on that.”

Ergen and Cullen also declined to say whether Dish would look to obtain CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum.

And the executives didn’t say whether Dish would use satellite connections to augment its wireless network, though Cullen noted that the company’s “S band satellites are held by Dish. So, our ability to use S band associated with the NB-IoT network doesn't require any transaction with EchoStar."

Ergen explained that Dish’s first hurdle is to build out its NB-IoT network, and he said the company has 669 days to do that before Dish runs afoul of the FCC’s spectrum buildout requirement timeline. “The focus is really on that first hurdle,” he said.