Marek’s Take: How much of Dish’s 5G launch delays are due to new tech?

Dish’s repeated launch delays and timeline adjustments are making some question the company’s ability to make good on its 5G promises. (Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)
Marek's take

This isn’t the first time a company from outside the telecom world has underestimated the difficulty of becoming a wireless service provider so I guess I’m not surprised that Dish Network has repeatedly pushed off its commercial launch of its 5G network.

To recap, Dish initially said it would launch its first 5G market of Las Vegas by the end of 2020. Then the company pushed that launch date back to the first part of 2021 and then back again — to the third quarter of 2021. Now the company is saying it will “beta” launch the Las Vegas market in the fourth quarter of 2021 but that beta launch will run for 90 days, which means the network won’t be commercially available until early 2022.

To be clear, Dish isn’t just launching any 5G network, it’s launching a greenfield 5G network with its core network running in the public cloud and it’s using open RAN technology, which is unlike any other 5G network currently in operation in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Dish’s repeated launch delays and timeline adjustments don’t leave me feeling particularly confident in the company’s ability to make good on its 5G promises. And even Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen seems to be lacking some confidence in Dish’s ability to pull off this fete without any glitches. During the company’s second quarter earnings call with investors, Ergen admitted that even when the Las Vegas market is up and running, he expects some problems.  “Things don’t work exactly right the first month or two, and you’ve got to integrate that,” he said.

It seems like Dish’s network team could have done a better job of managing expectations.  While Dish as a company is new to the wireless game, its wireless team is not. The company has some fairly experienced network heavyweights on its team, including former Nokia executive Marc Rouanne, who is Dish’s EVP and chief network officer; Stephen Bye, the company’s chief commercial officer and a long-time wireless executive who has worked for Sprint, Cox Communications and regional operator C-Spire; and Dave Mayo, the EVP of network development, and a former T-Mobile executive.

Interestingly, Dish appears to have organized its network buildout differently than how other operators run their networks. Mayo said during the company’s second quarter earnings call that Dish has divided its U.S. coverage into four regions and 36 markets and said that tower leases have been signed and construction has started in close to 30 Dish markets.

What’s different from other operators is that Dish’s regional general managers are handling the network buildout in their markets. I recently spoke with Marco Santi, Dish’s general manager for the Detroit market. Santi said that he and his 30 peers (who oversee Dish’s markets across the country) are in charge of everything – from site development to network design and operations. They handle the network construction, get tower permits and deal with local municipalities. In fact, Santi said that one of the biggest challenges he faces today is getting permits to build tower sites because the local municipality is understaffed, which is just one of the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now other operators also have regional market managers in different areas of the country. However, those market managers don’t oversee the network. Instead, they are in charge of the sales and the financial performance in their region and are focused at the operator’s retail stores.

Santi is well aware that his job is different from regional manager jobs at other operators, and he said that he believes this is an advantage for Dish because he can make decisions quickly and get things done faster than a network operations team based out of the corporate headquarters can.

But having 30 different regional general managers calling the shots and making decisions about the network could also prove cumbersome, particularly when it comes to making sure that the network performs consistently from one market to another.

While this type of regional structure may help Dish quickly meet the FCC’s mandated spectrum buildout deadline of covering 20% of the U.S. population by June 14, 2022, it could also create challenges down the road.

However, Dish executives also have mentioned that they are working closing with systems integrators so perhaps those integrators will help it iron out any issues that occur with Dish’s network buildout. These SIs also are working with the company on enterprise services and Bye said during the company’s second quarter earnings calls that Dish is seeing a lot of interest from enterprises that want to use the company’s network for their business operations.

Building a wireless network from scratch isn’t easy. The industry is closely watching Dish and the pressure is on for it to fulfill its promises. Let’s see that Las Vegas market launch soon and by 2022 I hope Dish will prove it’s a viable contender in the wireless space.