C-band delay: Dish spectrum to the rescue?

Considering that AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay their C-band deployments by one month due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concerns, would Dish Network consider leasing some of its boatload of spectrum for a spell?

That question came up during Dish’s third-quarter earnings call Thursday, the same day AT&T and Verizon revealed they’re going to hold off on their highly anticipated C-band deployment. The FAA and FCC are embroiled in yet another fight over spectrum, and delaying the commercial C-band launch will give the FAA more time to assess any impact on aviation safety – concerns that have existed for several years.

With a depth of spectrum, some of which is leasable to AT&T and/or Verizon, Dish is in a position to lease some of that to its would-be rivals. Dish co-founder and Chairman Charlie Ergen was asked if he would consider temporarily leasing out more spectrum to make some money while Dish builds out its own greenfield 5G network.

Ergen answered “yes,” and noted that Dish has been very public about its wholesale business. It’s currently leasing capacity to T-Mobile today, and “we do think there are other interested parties in leasing capacity,” he said, adding there are a number of parties that have asked about it in the short term.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon postpone C-Band rollouts until air safety review

Dish does hold an abundance of spectrum across multiple bands, which has fed into its reputation as a spectrum hoarder over the years. But it’s also a source for spectrum leasing, which wireless carriers have taken advantage of, including when the pandemic hit.

In setting up the question, LightShed analyst Walter Piecyk noted that while the C-band delay is for one month (and details were still emerging), Ligado Networks has shown that spectrum disputes can stretch out much longer than expected. Ligado is still dodging flack from the GPS community even after the FCC granted it the authority to use its L-band spectrum more than a year ago.  

Verizon spent more than $45 billion in a record-setting auction of C-band spectrum, indicating the value it places on the 3.7 GHz spectrum. Considered prime spectrum for 5G, it’s not clear what other spectrum combinations might serve as a suitable, temporary replacement, but Dish has a hodge-podge in its holdings.

RELATED: Dish reluctantly extends its 600 MHz spectrum loan to T-Mobile

Separately, Dish was asked if the radios it’s deploying are capable of using the 800 MHz band that is has an option to buy from T-Mobile. Dish EVP and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Bye explained that the support is there for 800 MHz if they decide to exercise that option. “All the plumbing is in place,” with hardware and software, so all Dish has to do is activate those radios. Various carrier aggregation combinations also are being designed into the product to support that option, he said.

5G network build update

Dish initially said it would launch its first 5G market in Las Vegas by the end of 2020, but the company later postponed that to a beta launch in the fourth quarter of 2021.

In its earnings update, Dish said its consumer beta test in Las Vegas consists of friendly users helping test the network. They’re still working on handover and roaming issues with T-Mobile, so Las Vegas remains a work in progress, with a commercial launch expected in the first quarter of 2022.

The next big thing is November 29-December 3, when AWS has its re:Invent conference in Las Vegas and people will “probably get to experience a part of our network then,” Ergen said.

More broadly, Dish is making progress in its leasing and permitting activities. It’s due to cover 20% of the U.S. population with 5G by June 2022, and it’s supposed to cover 70% of the U.S. population by 2023. Construction activity is now underway in 42 markets.

CDMA shutdown looms

As for the CDMA shutdown that T-Mobile pushed back from January to March 31 of 2022, Ergen’s opinion hasn’t changed a great deal from earlier this year when he called T-Mobile the Magenta Grinch.

Dish will still have well over 1 million customers on the CDMA network “and if T-Mobile has their way, those customers will lose service on March 31,” he said. In fact, based on T-Mobile’s testimony in California, many won’t even be able to make 911 calls, he said.

“We look at it a little bit different than T-Mobile. We look at it for consumer first and say why in the world do you want to disenfranchise customers? … We realize that T-Mobile is a for-profit company. But we play the long game and we want to make sure that we’re taking care of consumers,” Ergen said.  

RELATED: Dish loses 121K wireless subs in Q3

For the most part, the CDMA subscribers on the Boost network who are most affected are more economically challenged customers, “which is why we’re not able to convert them. It just seems like the wrong thing to do… I would have preferred to work with T-Mobile,” he said, adding: “We’re not against the CDMA shutdown.”

However, “that’s something they’re going to have to live with their whole life. They’re going to have to live with the fact that they’re anti-consumer,” he said, suggesting the January 1 date was a “false deadline” and the March 31 date might also be a false deadline. “We’ll continue to go as fast as we can, but it’s disappointing. I’m disappointed in T-Mobile and I wish they’d taken a little bit longer-term approach to it.”  

Dish, which signed a network agreement with AT&T earlier this year, does not yet have roaming with AT&T, Ergen said. T-Mobile is first up and remains an important MVNO partner; Dish can’t even launch a commercial service without T-Mobile roaming. “We’re working through those issues,” he said. “It’s not a secret that our relationship is not the greatest, so that’s difficult but they’ve made commitments.” AT&T will come later, he said.