Dish inks tower deal with SBA for 5G network

cell tower
Dish expects spending to "increase substantially" throughout 2021 as its 5G buildout ramps up. (Getty Images)

Dish Network signed a tower deal with SBA Communications, its second long-term lease with one of the big three tower companies.

Details about the deal were sparse and a Dish spokesperson said the company wasn’t disclosing the length of the Master Lease Agreement (MLA) or number of sites it covers.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

In addition to leasing towers, SBA will also provide pre-construction services, such as site acquisition and regulatory and compliance services.

"With experience spanning more than thirty years, SBA brings a valuable team and portfolio to our infrastructure mix," said Dave Mayo, Dish EVP of Network Development, in a statement. "This agreement provides DISH with access to key real estate that will help advance our rapid 5G network deployment across the U.S."

Dish and SBA are each hosting their respective fourth quarter earnings call today.

In November Dish struck its first major infrastructure deal, in an MLA with Crown Castle that covers up to 20,000 macro towers and includes fiber services.

Agreement with private tower companies followed. Those include Vertical Bridge and more recently seven other partners who are providing access to 4,000 additional macro sites as Dish works to build out its own 5G network.

RELATED: Dish sheds 363K wireless subs, warns of T-Mobile 3G shutdown

Dish continues to peg the price tag of its 5G network build at $10 billion, but in a Monday note to investors MoffettNathanson analysts said there are more questions than answers surrounding the company’s plans, including where the money will come from.

“We don’t know what customer base [Dish] plan to serve with their wireless network (Wholesale? Retail? Enterprise? Consumer?). We don’t know if the network will be national or regional. We don’t know how much it is all going to cost. And we still don’t’ know who is going to pay for it,” wrote the team led by Craig Moffett.

Dish hinted at an unnamed strategic partner during testimony at the T-Mobile/Sprint merger trial, which some speculated could be the likes of Amazon or Google – but hasn’t named one yet.

Moffett also pointed to Dish’s satellite pay TV and recently acquired Boost Mobile prepaid businesses as “cash cows” previously expected to fund the buildout.

“But time is running out on that too,” wrote the analysts.

RELATED: Dish’s new SVP of retail wireless gets another shot at disruption

On Monday Dish reported losing 363,000 retail wireless subscribers in the fourth quarter and warned there could be negative impacts when T-Mobile turns off its 3G network in early 2022. While Dish works to build out a 5G network, its retail wireless subscribers are riding on T-Mobile’s network under a seven-year MVNO agreement.  

“Dish is doing a commendable job in running its legacy businesses for cash, but they are declining nonetheless. It is impossible to view either segment as a sustainable source of funding for the 5G network,” wrote Moffett.  

Still, Dish has shown commitment to the network build, lining up a roster of equipment, transport, and services vendors. Plans call for cloud-native 5G network built with an open RAN architecture.

In December the provider completed a successful field validation for its virtualized standalone 5G core network and O-RAN-compliant radio.

In SEC filings Dish reported that purchases for property and equipment were $115 million lower in 2020 than in 2019 because of spending for a previously planned narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network that was scrapped in favor of the standalone 5G plans. 

“We anticipate expenditures for our 5G Network Deployment to increase substantially throughout 2021 as we ramp up the build-out phase” of the 5G deployment, Dish stated in its 10-K.

To meet FCC buildout deadlines Dish’s network needs to cover 70% of the U.S. population by June 2023. The first major 5G market is expected in the second half of this year.