T-Mobile takes huge swing at Dish for hoarding spectrum

Overall carrier spectrum holdings (Macquarie Capital)
Dish Network owns almost as much nationwide spectrum as T-Mobile. (Macquarie Capital)

T-Mobile took the gloves off in its battle against Dish Network, urging the FCC to strip the company of its vast spectrum holdings because Dish has no immediate plans to build out much of its spectrum.

Dish, T-Mobile argued, “intends to continue to warehouse spectrum with no benefit to consumers. The [FCC’s Wireless] Bureau should not permit Dish to succeed with its plan,” T-Mobile wrote in its lengthy filing on the topic. (The full filing is available at the end of this article.)

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Indeed, T-Mobile didn’t hold back in its arguments against Dish, noting that Dish’s plan to build out an NB-IoT network by 2020 would use only about 2% of Dish’s vast 95 MHz of nationwide spectrum holdings. T-Mobile said that action violates rules at the commission that spectrum holders must put their holdings to use instead of sitting on them.

“The demand for mobile broadband services and spectrum capacity has only increased since the Commission stated its expected use of the spectrum Dish holds,” T-Mobile wrote. “In contrast to Dish, T-Mobile is meeting those mobile broadband needs by putting to use—and quickly—spectrum it obtained in the recently concluded broadcast incentive auction. Last month, T-Mobile announced that it has deployed 600 MHz Extended Range LTE in 1,254 cities and towns in 36 states, including the island of Puerto Rico. T-Mobile’s own efforts to satisfy real consumer demands make it clear that as the demand for broadband use continues to grow exponentially, Dish’s plan is no more than a cynical effort to hoard valuable spectrum assets.”

T-Mobile even pointed out that Dish’s actions run against President Trump’s recent call to free up more spectrum for 5G.

Dish wasted little time in responding. Hours after T-Mobile's filing became public, Dish issued this statement by Jeff Blum, the company's SVP of public policy and government affairs: “T-Mobile’s letter to the FCC is another attempt to stifle competition (in addition to their proposed takeover of Sprint). T-Mobile has been well-aware of DISH’s NB-IoT plans since March 2017. Since that time, T-Mobile and others have also announced NB-IoT plans. We welcome competition in this important category of wireless services. DISH remains committed to meeting the obligations of our FCC licenses, and has made good progress on our initial NB-IoT deployment. We also are excited about building the first stand-alone 5G network in the United States. Our 5G network will not be burdened by current legacy architecture. This will enable a more powerful and efficient use of spectrum, and launch new digital services that incumbent networks might find challenging."

Added Blum: “We are encouraged by the recent Executive Order [by President Trump] that leadership in 5G is a national priority, and we look forward to playing an important role to make sure this vision becomes a reality.”

Dish, for its part, has said it plans to spend up to $1 billion by 2020 building out a nationwide NB-IoT network for IoT services, which the company describes as “phase one” of its wireless efforts. (That 2020 build-out date coincides with the FCC’s build-out conditions on Dish’s spectrum licenses.) Phase two, Dish said, would involve spending up to $10 billion to build a full-blown nationwide 5G network, though Dish has not said when it might finish that effort.

It’s no real surprise that T-Mobile has decided to take on Dish. First, T-Mobile has been very clear in its desire to acquire more spectrum. The company has been accumulating 700 MHz spectrum on the secondary market and was the only major bidder during the FCC’s recent 600 MHz auction. And T-Mobile has said it plans to acquire additional spectrum licenses in the FCC’s upcoming millimeter-wave spectrum auctions.

Further, there is no love lost between Dish and T-Mobile; Dish is perhaps the loudest opponent of T-Mobile’s plan to merge with Sprint. “Economic analysis and empirical evidence demonstrate that, instead of enhancing competition, such consolidation is apt to thwart it,” Dish stated this summer in its opposition to the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.

T-Mobile’s latest assault against Dish stems from an FCC inquiry into Dish’s wireless activities. In July, the head of the FCC’s wireless bureau fired a wide range of questions at Dish Network about the carrier’s wireless network build-out plans. Importantly, the FCC’s Donald Stockdale stated that “I am contacting you to request updates and more detailed information on your build-out plans for the 53 megahertz of low- and midband spectrum that is apparently lying fallow in these bands.”

T-Mobile said that Dish’s recent response to those questions proves that the company is simply hoarding spectrum and not planning to build it out. “Dish’s efforts … constitute nothing more than a ‘license saving’ deployment scheme and are insufficient to meet its performance obligations,” T-Mobile wrote. “In a recent decision establishing consistent performance and reporting obligations for wireless services, the Commission specifically rejected the use of ‘channel keepers’—devices used principally to demonstrate that a service is being provided.”

Article updated Oct. 28 with commentary from Dish.