Dish’s first wireless partners revealed: Ericsson and SBA

Dish Network has inked agreements with network equipment vendor Ericsson and tower company SBA Communications in order to complete its nationwide NB-IoT network build-out by March 2020. Dish has pledged to spend up to $1 billion on the effort.

The news is notable considering that, until today, Dish had not specifically named any partners for its planned wireless network build-out.

Ericsson—the nation’s largest wireless network equipment vendor by market share, according to Dell’Oro Group—stands as Dish’s most important partner: Ericsson supplied the radio frequency design for Dish’s network earlier this year, and is also supplying radios and its “cloud core” network for the effort. Terms of the deal, including the amount Dish likely is paying Ericsson, were not disclosed.

“Dish is in the unique position of building a greenfield network, starting with NB-IoT, with a clear path to 5G,” Niklas Heuveldop, head of Ericsson’s North American business, said in a release. “We are excited that Dish has decided to partner with Ericsson to address the IoT opportunity. We believe that NB-IoT holds great potential for both consumers and businesses across the U.S.”

The companies also reiterated that they have been able to validate and deploy an “extended range” network that will allow each NB-IoT tower to transmit a signal up to 100 km. That’s a key element in Dish’s strategy because it allows the company to cover huge swathes of territory without having to pay as many tower companies to install Ericsson’s radios at the top of their towers.

And separately, SBA Communications confirmed this week that it will supply at least some of the towers that Dish will use to broadcast its NB-IoT signal. Jeff Stoops, CEO of SBA, said on the company’s earnings conference call that Dish has signed leases for access to an unspecified number of SBA towers.

“We are actually seeing a fair amount of activity from Dish,” Stoops said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of SBA’s earnings call. “And that will probably be the most notable [customer] outside of the big four [Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint].”

“SBA is the first tower company to note activity from Dish,” wrote the analysts at Wells Fargo in a note to investors this week, following the release of SBA’s earnings. “The size and impact of Dish’s network plans remain to be seen.”

The Wells Fargo analysts added they still believe Dish’s NB-IoT network build-out efforts are a “‘license saver” strategy by the carrier—meaning, Dish is building an NB-IoT network mainly to meet the FCC’s spectrum license build-out requirements and not to actually create a commercial, revenue-generating service.

Indeed, that argument was made forcefully to the FCC directly by executives from T-Mobile, who stated that Dish’s ongoing build-out is “no more than a cynical effort to hoard valuable spectrum assets.” The T-Mobile executives urged FCC officials to strip Dish of its vast spectrum license holdings.

Not surprisingly, Dish executives have disputed such claims. They have also said that the company’s NB-IoT network is the first phase of its bigger wireless ambitions. The second phase of the company’s plan would involve building out a full-blown 5G network, an effort that could cost up to $10 billion. Dish executives have not given a timeline for the completion of that second phase.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that Dish itself has said that it may explore “non-traditional business models” as it tackles the internet of things space with its NB-IoT network and, eventually, with its 5G network. Specifically, Dish told the FCC in May that it would look for “new partnerships and sharing models, including the potential to serve as a highly secure open source or neutral host to support industry verticals” and that it could operate “a highly secure open source, neutral host, or other shared 5G architecture.”