Dish revises 5G launch schedule, risking to break its FCC promises

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Given the deafening silence of the last few months on the Dish 5G network buildout front, it’s hardly shocking to hear Charlie Ergen revise his previously optimistic forecast of a single market launch by the end of the year.

Worse yet, the chairman and co-founder of the company that recently became the fourth-largest wireless service provider in the US only expects to deploy 5G in “some preliminary, small markets” in the first quarter of 2021, with an expansion to the operator’s first “major market” planned sometime during Q3 of next year.

From 1 to 15,000 in two and a half years?

The big problem with that timeline is the satellite TV veteran turned wireless industry rookie badly needs to cover 20 percent of the country’s population with its in-house 5G mobile technology by June 2022, a number that then has to be increased to no less than 70 percent just a year later.

If Dish doesn’t fulfill its promises to the Federal Communications Commission, the company faces large financial penalties, not to mention the prospect of losing some of the spectrum licenses Ergen has been infamously hoarding over the years without putting them to any good use for actual customers.

Although at first glance it may seem all but physically impossible for Dish to make good on its pledges that helped get the T-Mobile/Sprint merger across the finish line, the Colorado-based outfit’s top execs remain optimistic about their chances to do precisely that.
Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Bye, for instance, claims that Dish is still “on track in terms of the deployment”, remaining very confident that Sprint’s replacement in the mobile network landscape will be able to turn on a minimum of 15,000 cell sites of its own by June 2023.
That would represent an increase of 14,999 from where the company currently sits after hanging the necessary radios and antennas on its first 5G trial site in Littleton, Colorado last week. Bye says Dish is in a “very, very good position” to accelerate its network buildout efforts at the exact pace needed to meet all its goals, an opinion unsurprisingly shared by Charlie Ergen, who essentially claims that the planning and permits-acquiring process is more than half the work.

Money is also tight

The actual “climbing of the tower and placement of gear” should be a much quicker process, especially when Dish starts to, well, receive a large number of “very sophisticated” Fujitsu radios. These are expected to speed up the network rollout process as well, but unfortunately, the equipment is not ready for primetime yet and it may not be until Q2 2021.

In the meantime, Dish is focused on improving the profitability of its Boost Mobile business in addition to laying the groundwork for its potentially disruptive 5G launch. The T-Mobile-hosted MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), recently acquired for $1.4 billion, continued to bleed subscribers during Q3 2020.

Namely, Dish lost more than 200,000 wireless customers between July and September, ending the quarter with a subscriber total of below 9.5 million people. That may sound bad, but revenue actually surpassed expectations, confirming the belief of some analysts that the business could thrive down the line.

In the short run, Dish will be happy with whatever revenue the Boost brand generates, needing all the funds it can get to pour into its 5G network development enterprise. While Ergen insists this won’t cost more than $10 billion stretched out over a period of up to seven years, most industry pundits and financial analysts are skeptical of that estimate, believing Dish needs a deep-pocketed partner like Google or Amazon to truly upend the market’s status quo.

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