Checking in on the Dish Cellular Launch

Late in 2019, Dish said that it had hoped to launch some major cellular markets by the end of this year. That optimistic schedule went out the door when the pandemic hit in March, but the task of launching a nationwide cellular network from scratch is such a daunting task that a 2020 launch was already overoptimistic.

Charlie Ergen, the Chairman of Dish, says the company is still on track to meet its commitment to the FCC. That requires having a cellular network that will reach 20% of the US population by June 14, 2022 and at least 70% of the US population by mid-2023.

The company recently took another big step in getting ready for the cellular launch when it struck agreements with four fiber providers to provide transport to new cell sites. The combination of Everstream, Zayo, Uniti, and Segra will help Dish reach cell sites. One has to think that post-launch that Dish will follow the other big cellular companies by building fiber to eliminate leased transport. But the company is entering the business without a terrestrial fiber network and it might take decades for it to catch up to the other carriers.

Dish reached an important milestone and opened its first test cell site a few months ago in Littleton, Colorado. This cell site lets the company begin implementing the company’s plan to use an open RAN network. This is a network that is largely software-driven and that can reduce the cost of electronics and maintenance. An open RAN architecture also will make Dish the nimblest cellular carrier since they will be able to roll-out new features and functions quickly on a national scale. One of the most intriguing possibilities for an open RAN network is the ability to design custom applications for large business customers – one of the most promising aspects of 5G.

Dish still has a long way to go and a lot of operational barriers to overcome. The biggest challenge from the start was hiring and assembling a coherent team to implement the roll-out. The company had no cellular expertise in house and doesn’t have a ready-made fleet of experienced cell site technicians. The challenge of hiring droves of people and getting them to gel as an efficient team is something that few companies have pulled-off.

Perhaps the biggest time challenge for the company is getting space on a huge number of cell towers. In urban areas, many cellular towers are already full. But even for towers with space, the process for getting onto even a single tower requires a lot of effort. Engineering studies must be performed for each tower to make certain that the towers can support the new antennas during storms. The alternate process of deploying small cell sites is still reported as slow by all of the cellular carriers. While some cities have streamlined the small cell process, many cities still insist on processes that take time to work through. I would think that this is a pretty good time to be a cell tower siting consultant.

Dish has gotten a head start on the customer service side of the business through the acquisition of Boost Mobile, with 9 million customers. Dish also purchased the US cellular business from Ting Mobile, which brought only 200,000 customers, but brought what has been described as a world-class customer service platform.

Dish still needs to raise around $10 billion to complete construction of the cellular network. This is aided in part by already having about $1 billion in revenues from Boost Mobile customers. Dish executives still believe raising the money is not going to be a problem, but some industry analysts are a little more skeptical.

Dish is pinning its hopes on having a network with operating costs that are 35% to 50% lower than the existing cellular companies. A lot of that expected benefits come from the open RAN network and the expected savings in both hardware and labor costs incurred by other cellular companies to maintain and upgrade the network.  There is still a long way for the company to go, and like many in the industry the pandemic slowed down its plans – but it seems to be on the right track. I would love to see the Gantt chart for this roll-out – it must be a doozy!

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