Dish disappointed in FCC’s inaction on 12 GHz fixed wireless proposal

Dish Network is disappointed the FCC hasn’t ruled on its proposal to use the 12 GHz band for fixed wireless services, and Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen is “a little cautious” about the market for fixed wireless because, he said, the government is picking technology winners and losers.

His comment came at the end of Dish’s Q3 earnings call on Monday, where the company spent the majority of time talking about how it’s trying to become a viable fourth facilities-based U.S. wireless carrier.

Dish has said it would like to use the 12 GHz spectrum for fixed wireless services and it’s trying to get the FCC to authorize fixed use in the band. 

“The economics of fixed wireless now are being decided by government agencies,” Ergen said. “If everything was fair and a level playing field and the best technology won, I would be unbelievably bullish on fixed wireless.”

However, if somebody gets a subsidy of $100,000 to run fiber out to a farmhouse, “you’re not going to compete with that even though it’s only $1,000 on fixed wireless,” he said. “You’re not going to compete with that $100,000 bill because you have to pay the $1,000 as a private company … Until we see that sorted out on government policy, it’s going to be a little bit tricky on the fixed wireless side.”

He added: “It's hard for our board to look at a return on investment in fixed wireless when we don't know if we're competing against the government subsidy or if we're competing against the marketplace. And where we compete against the marketplace, we're very bullish.”

Talking to the FCC

Ergen was among Dish representatives who last month met with FCC officials, including newly seated Commissioner Anna Gomez, to urge the agency to adopt rules that would allow the use of the 12.2-12.7 GHz band for fixed wireless.

Dish says the 12.2-12.7 GHz band represents 500 megahertz of spectrum that can be authorized for higher power fixed service without causing harmful interference to incumbents. Dish itself uses the band for direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services.

“It’s a real opportunity for the commission to do something spectrum related, hopefully on a bipartisan basis, to update 20-year-old rules to allow high power fixed wireless service to folks, especially in unconnected communities,” Jeff Blum, Dish's EVP, External & Legislative Affairs, told Fierce in a recent interview.

He acknowledged that earlier this year, the FCC decided not to allow terrestrial mobile service in the band, giving a win to SpaceX, but the agency was open to investigating the potential to expand terrestrial fixed use in the band.

SpaceX, which owns Starlink, has been arguing vehemently against fixed wireless in the 12 GHz band and late last month also met with FCC staff to condemn “Dish and its sidekicks’ rudimentary attempts to seize new terrestrial rights in the 12 GHz band,” according to an ex parte filing.

Dish: Fixed easier than mobile in 12 GHz

Blum said the lower 12 GHz band doesn’t have the problems that other bands have encountered in previous spectrum fights. For example, there’s no Department of Defense (DoD), GPS or Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) using the spectrum.

In addition, a fixed service is much easier to coordinate. The FCC had concerns about mobility because they couldn’t know if a cell phone would be next to a SpaceX terminal in someone’s home. But with fixed, it’s much easier to deal with any potential interference.

The 5G for 12 GHz Coalition is urging quick action because Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) funds are in play, and “we believe in a tech-neutral approach” to the $42 billion program, Blum said.

If the FCC acts quickly to update the rules to allow two-way and higher power terrestrial services in the band, then Dish and other folks could submit BEAD bids to serve under-connected communities, he said. The FCC doesn’t need auction authority because the licenses were auctioned off in 2005.

“It’s something the commission can do immediately … and it would really be a missed opportunity if the FCC declined to do it. SpaceX has a lot of other spectrum,” he added.

“Fiber obviously is important, but we think communities could benefit from fixed wireless as well as satellite,” Blum said. “You try to pick the right technology for the community. Sometimes fiber is just going to be way too expensive and fixed wireless is the right solution. Sometimes fixed wireless may be too expensive and satellite may be the right solution.”

The belief is that most states will include fixed wireless as part of the solution, he said.

“We don’t want to fight with SpaceX or DirecTV. We want to share the spectrum and we think fixed broadband can protect those services,” he said, adding that they’re proposing a Tribal set-aside so that if an eligible tribe wants 100 megahertz for a fixed wireless service, the 12 GHz licensees would be obligated to give it to them as a condition of a modified license.