Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen is known for driving a hard bargain. When his company snapped up wireless spectrum licenses in a variety of bands including the 700 MHz band and AWS-4 Band during recent FCC auctions, most of the industry assumed he’d sit on those licenses for a bit and then sell them to a wireless carrier for a significant profit. But now it looks like Dish’s plan to build a nationwide narrowband IoT network and then supplement it with a standalone 5G network based on a virtualized network architecture is gaining some traction.
Tower company SBA Communications, which in November revealed that Dish was leasing tower space from the company, said that Dish is actively signing tower leases. During a Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom investor conference on March 12, SBA Communications CEO and President Jeff Stoops said that Dish has been a good source of activity for the tower company. “I’m surprised at what I see as a general misperception of what is going on with Dish,” Stoops said. “They are serious about their deployment, and they are deploying in a traditional way.” He added that they are leasing space on many of the same towers as AT&T and Verizon.
But some experts say it’s one thing to build a network but another to make it a viable business. Market research firm Wireless 20/20 says that while Dish may be serious about building out its network, the company doesn’t appear to be serious about providing an actual service and marketing it to customers. Fred Campbell, a senior policy adviser to Wireless 20/20 and the former chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, doesn’t see any indication that Dish is committed to a commercial business and believes it is mostly building out the network so it can preserve its spectrum.
Campbell isn’t alone in his views. T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who is known for making disparaging remarks about his company’s competitors over Twitter, just last month called Dish a spectrum hoarder. In a tweet Legere said the company’s video of its tower site in Windsor, Colorado, was just a ploy to keep the FCC from taking away its spectrum. “They’ve warehoused $11B of spectrum for years and missed every build deadline. NOW they finally start to deploy with one tower so spectrum doesn’t get taken away,” Legere said in his tweet.
And this isn’t the first time T-Mobile has accused Dish of spectrum hoarding. Last October T-Mobile filed a lengthy letter with the FCC accusing the company of warehousing spectrum and said its narrowband IoT network would only use about 2% of the company’s vast 95 MHz of nationwide spectrum holdings.
Dish is facing a significant FCC deadline. By March 2020 it must be able to prove to the FCC that it can offer service to 70% of the population in the 700 MHz spectrum band and the AWS spectrum band where it owns licenses. And by April 29, 2022, it must be able to provide service to 75% of the population in each H Block spectrum license area that it owns.
During its fourth-quarter earnings call with investors last month, Ergen said that the company is making progress on its narrowband IoT network, which it considers the first phase of its standalone 5G network. “Our expectation is [that] we’re going to meet the deadlines. We know there’s going to be a lot of obstacles in the way, but we intend to meet the deadline,” he said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the call. Ergen reiterated that the NB-IoT network will cost up to $1 billion through the end of 2020.
And Ergen believes that because Dish isn’t a traditional wireless operator that its NB-IoT network will be evaluated more closely than others. “I think we’re coming under a different level of scrutiny than probably any other wireless provider has,” he said.
But others dispute that claim. Berge Ayvazian, principal consultant at Wireless 20/20, said that he doesn’t think Dish has had enough scrutiny from the FCC. “If they had they wouldn’t be where they are,” he said.