The FCC just held an auction for the 1900 MHz spectrum and the only bidder and the winner of it all was Dish Networks. For some reason they did this under a different corporate name, but everybody knew from the beginning that it was them bidding.
This is not the first spectrum purchased by Dish. In the 2008 auction for 700 MHz Dish bought a nationwide footprint in the E Block. Dish also bought a nationwide 40 MHz-wide band of S-band spectrum at 2 GHz from TerreStar Networks and DBSD North America. Adding this all together Dish now has a sizable pile of spectrum.
So what do they plan to do with it? Nobody is entirely sure, but we know a bit about what they have been experimenting with. The E Block of the 700 MHz spectrum isn’t really usable for two-way communications. Last year Dish told the FCC that it was experimenting with using the frequency for various mobile television technologies. This included Mobile to Handheld (ATSC M/H), Digital Video Broadcasting Handheld (DVB-H), Satellite Services to Handhelds (DVB-SH), and China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting (CMMB). They also could use the spectrum in an LTE network to broadcast some of their satellite service directly to handsets.
If they can get happy with one of these technologies, then they could then offer a mobile TV service. You might remember that Qualcomm tried this a few years back and offered a dozen or so TV channels for $10. That venture was a failure. But since then the world has changed rapidly. There are now a lot of smart phones and tablets and there are a lot of people looking for ways to bypass their expensive cable packages. One only has to look at the success Aereo has had in major cities to see that the time might be ripe for such an offering. And Dish already has the programming and would avoid Aereo’s legal woes.
Dish is currently testing wireless broadband in Virginia and will be testing it later this year in Corpus Christie. They have made a deal with Sprint to use the spectrum from Sprint cell sites and they could use this spectrum to bring broadband to some parts of rural America. The amount of bandwidth they can deliver would not be competitive in metropolitan areas, but it might be welcomed in those parts of America where there is still no real broadband.
Like all wireless data technologies, the speeds anybody gets is going to depend largely on how far away they are from a transmitter. But one would think that this technology could deliver up to 20 Mbps download close to a transmitter and maybe 3 Mbps download four or five miles from the transmitter. In places that still have dial-up that could be a good new option.
This would also bring broadband to those same areas where Dish sells a lot of satellite TV. This would allow them for the first time to offer a bundle of services, something they have always wanted to do. They already have some of the cheapest television prices in the country, since it is cheaper to operate satellites than it is to operate wireline cable networks. They could become quite profitable with the bundle – and one would suppose this would also bundle in Sprint cellular service.
Rural America needs broadband badly. What Dish is looking at is really not a great solution, but it is a lot better than what is there today. The only problem I see with this idea is that once Dish delivers slow broadband to a rural area that other providers are going to be even less likely to invest to build landline networks to bring real broadband. While 5 Mbps sounds like heaven to somebody on dial-up, it doesn’t give the rural customer the same speeds and benefits gotten in urban markets. The data speeds in Cities is getting faster all of the time and there is a growing list of places that now have an option for Gigabit fiber. As much as I appreciate what Dish is contemplating, I also fear that their bandwidth could relegate rural markets to a permanent slow Internet hell. The FCC would no longer worry about such areas because they would consider that they have broadband. Which is a shame, because this is not broadband that can help rural America thrive, but rather will just keep them limping by.