T-Mobile’s plan to shut down its CDMA network in January 2022 isn’t sitting right with Dish Network Chairman and co-founder Charlie Ergen, so much so that he’s seeing T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert as the Grinch in a magenta suit.
According to Dish, millions of Boost Mobile customers will be affected by the shutdown of the CDMA network, which T-Mobile acquired through the Sprint merger. At the same time, Dish acquired Boost as a condition of the government’s approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger.
Dish lost about 161,000 Boost customers in the first quarter of 2021, and that number could tick up a lot higher a year from now if the company doesn’t get a reprieve from T-Mobile regarding the CDMA shutdown.
“I’ve always had high respect for the management of T-Mobile and particularly their CEO,” Ergen said during Thursday’s first quarter earnings call. But he was disappointed in some of the things that Sievert said when he was on Fox News last month.
“This is the same company that goes on Twitter and talks about dumb and dumber and how they’re for everybody, they love everybody and they’re for the consumer. They went to the Public Utility Commission in California under oath and said that it would be three years before they turned CDMA off. They forgot about that. Once they got their merger done, they look like every other big company,” Ergen said.
“They’ve become the Grinch,” he said. As the Dr. Seuss story goes, the Grinch had a tiny heart and stole all the kids’ toys. In Ergen’s analogy, T-Mobile is sort of stealing phones out of consumers’ hands since they won’t work anymore.
“The ‘un-carrier’ is becoming the ‘un-caring carrier,’ and that’s a shame,” Ergen said, noting that he was reading the book to his granddaughter and instead of seeing the Grinch in green, he saw him wearing magenta.
For its part, T-Mobile has stated that it’s doing everything consistent with the agreement Dish made with T-Mobile a year and a half ago. It gave Dish notice in October 2020 for a January 1, 2022, transition, which is a lot more time than the six months' warning required by contract.
Dish has reached out to regulators, and Ergen said he remains hopeful that T-Mobile will have a change of heart and delay the shutdown. Even if Dish were to get several million new phones to distribute to customers, it still couldn’t do it in the next eight months because it doesn’t always have their emails or street addresses to notify them.
So far, Dish has acquired three MVNOs in the past year, starting with Boost. It also acquired Ting, and the company expects to close on Republic Wireless this quarter. Dish reported 8.89 million retail wireless subscribers at the end of the first quarter of 2021.
Generally, it’s looking to expand distribution and serve new segments compared to where it started with Boost. “I think we’ll really start hitting the gas when we have access to our own network and the best products and services,” said John Swieringa, EVP of the wireless retail group at Dish.
Dish recently lost a big supplier of handsets when LG announced it was going out of business. “The handset market is a big factor for us right now. We’re certainly making some progress, but we could potentially do more as the supply chain situation starts to open up a bit,” Swieringa said.
While the CDMA shutdown looms, analysts were especially interested in Dish’s plans with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Last week, Dish and AWS announced that Dish will be using AWS to host its radio access network (RAN) and mobile core for both public and private 5G networks.
“What we’re really doing is building a world class network that takes telecom to the next level. It really is an IT network that looks like a telecom network,” Ergen said. “It’s really the same thing that happened in the IT world 20 years ago.”
There’s no question that the U.S. leads in cloud technology, Ergen said. Dish evaluated multiple infrastructure options and did the deal with Amazon in part because it had a head start and a desire to get into the telco space in this way. But he didn’t disclose much about specific financial aspects of the deal.
“At the end of the day, they were best in class for what we needed,” Ergen said. “I think we’re going to be their largest customer in cloud and I think they may be the largest customer on our network. We have to build the network to prove it…I think that other carriers around the world, including the United States, will look at Amazon as a real leader here because we’re just doing something different.”
He reiterated that “we’re building Netflix in a Blockbuster world.” All Netflix did was put the video in the cloud, he added. “All we’re doing is taking all those towers that you see as you drive down the highway and we’re basically putting them in the cloud.”
5G network build
Dish also announced last week that Las Vegas will be its first major market to launch. The network is being designed using all of the spectrum bands available to Dish, and it’s on a path to launching that in the third quarter. However, it’s one of a number of markets that it will bring online this year, according to Stephen Bye, EVP and chief commercial officer at Dish. The company hasn’t announced the other markets.
“We’ve got activity going on across the country to actually build out this network,” Bye said. “We’ve proven that O-RAN, from a technology perspective, works...Now we’re in the deployment phase.”
Dish is building a standalone (SA) 5G native network, with all the infrastructure optimized for 5G, and its expectation to spend $10 billion to build it hasn’t changed.
Interestingly, the radios that Dish is currently deploying for its macro build in Las Vegas don’t include support for CBRS; those radios traditionally have run LTE rather than 5G. But it’s working with vendors on a new generation of radios that will incorporate CBRS, according to Bye.
Marc Rouanne, EVP and chief network officer, spoke highly of open RAN (O-RAN) and the progress they’re seeing there.
“We have seen an extraordinary investment, especially in the U.S. ecosystem, on silicon. In the radio domain, everybody has been dreaming of that for the past 20 years. Silicon has been the weakest point and what we see now, wow. It’s all over the place and O-RAN has driven that,” he said.
One of the areas of debate around Massive MIMO, which Dish is using as part of its network build, is around the "need to pair the compute with the radio in order to manage the beamforming, and we agree with that, but O-RAN allows you to do that as well,” he said. “O-RAN allows you to pair the compute and the software and the radio in order to have advanced beamforming, so O-RAN can do exactly the same, if not better.”