Dish and AT&T: What does it mean for 12 GHz?

Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen didn’t say much about the 12 GHz band during the company’s earnings call last week. In fact, if you blinked, you might have missed it.

He spent more time on the subject during an appearance with CNBC’s Brian Sullivan at the TPI Aspen Forum earlier this week. Discussing Dish’s new 10-year MVNO deal with AT&T, Ergen noted their shared interests in various areas, including 700 MHz spectrum and the 12 GHz band.

“We both have an interest in 12 GHz because we use it for satellite. We think that that’s a fantastic frequency for terrestrial, so we have some shared interest there,” he said.

Dish has spent more than five years trying to persuade the FCC to update the rules for the 12 GHz spectrum, where Dish owns MVDDS licenses it bought at auction. Earlier this year, the FCC started a formal comment cycle seeking input on how best to use the 12 GHz band. The debate has attracted media attention for the role of billionaires including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell and Dish’s Ergen.

“We think this spectrum has a lot of use in mobile,” and that other satellite companies can use it as well, Ergen said during the TPI forum. “We’re hopeful,” he said, adding that sometimes “adults in a room” can solve a problem, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. “Hopefully the FCC doesn’t have to make some tough decisions there, but it’s a great frequency that can impact how we do broadband” and lead in mobile in the United States.

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Aside from the recent MVNO agreement, speculation when it comes to AT&T and Dish has mainly centered around their dwindling satellite TV businesses and when they might blend them together, with the idea being they could share costs. The 12 GHz band? Not so much. While they share an “interest” in the band, those interests are pretty far apart.  

Dish and its allies petitioned the FCC in 2016 to change the rules for the 12 GHz band so that it could be used for 5G services. Dish owns the lion’s share of MVDDS licenses in the 12 GHz band and currently, they’re restricted to using that spectrum for one-way services. If the rules were changed, a full 500 MHz of spectrum could be used for 5G, and that’s a good thing, according to public interest groups.

However, AT&T has argued that introducing new two-way services into the 12 GHz band would put incumbent users, such as its own satellite TV service, at risk of interference. Dish doesn’t think its own satellite TV service would be harmed and promotes sharing the band between 5G terrestrial users and satellite companies.  

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Given Ergen’s references to the 12 GHz band during recent events, is it possible that something has changed with respect to the 12 GHz band since Dish reached the network services agreement with AT&T?

Dish declined to comment on that, and AT&T didn’t reply to Fierce’s request for comment.

Industry analyst Roger Entner, principal of Recon Analytics, said the 12 GHz band carries a lot of complications and doesn’t have that many advantages over millimeter wave spectrum, where the propagation characteristics add up to a mostly disadvantageous and costly proposition. In the big picture, he likened the 12 GHz spectrum to “millimeter wave-light.” In sum: “I don’t see the huge need for AT&T to change its tune,” he told Fierce.  

Ergen mentioned Dell during his appearance at the Aspen conference when discussing the 12 GH band. Dell is represented via RS Access, the second largest MVDDS licensee.

RS Access co-founder and CEO V. Noah Campbell declined to comment to Fierce about what might happen with the 12 GHz band now that Dish and AT&T are MVNO partners.

Meanwhile, RS Access has been defending an engineering study by RKF Engineering that SpaceX equated to “garbage.” According to SpaceX, the record shows the new spectrum rights that Dish and its allies are seeking are incompatible with next-generation satellite services that can connect “tens of thousands” of otherwise unserved Americans.

“We strongly believe that 12 GHz is ideal for 5G mobile networks and the RKF engineering analysis shows that spectrum sharing in the band is eminently feasible. We support any action that will help the FCC recognize the win-win opportunity and unleash 12 GHz to rapidly accelerate 5G deployment nationwide,” Campbell said in a statement.