Dish Wireless has been working feverishly to meet its FCC buildout requirements and today it announced that it offers 5G broadband service to over 70% of the U.S. population.

Dish said its 5G service is available to more than 240 million Americans, marking a major milestone for Dish, which built a first-of-its-kind 5G Standalone (SA) network based on open Radio Access Network (RAN). Dish was under an FCC mandate to cover 70% of the U.S. as part of the deal that enabled T-Mobile to acquire Sprint.

Dish said it has also satisfied all other June 14, 2023, FCC commitments, including the deployment of over 15,000 5G sites. The 70% coverage milestone uses Dish’s AWS-4, lower 700 MHz E Block, AWS H Block and 600 MHz spectrum.

“Our teams have worked tirelessly for years, and this achievement is a testament to their dedication and commitment as we grow the world’s first and only 5G cloud-native Open RAN network,” said Dave Mayo, executive vice president, Network Development at Dish Wireless, in a statement. “We appreciate the continued support and efforts of our partners as Dish continues to lead the industry in Open RAN deployment.”

Dish was the first U.S. operator to launch a 5G voice service, or Voice over New Radio (VoNR), going live in Las Vegas last year, and it’s been steadily increasing VoNR functionality in additional markets.

During the company’s earnings call last month, Dish Wireless President and COO John Swieringa said they were prepared to offer VoNR commercially in a little more than 50 cities through Boost Mobile and they expect that by the end of this year, they’ll be serving the majority of the U.S. population with VoNR while steadily getting more Band 70 devices into the distribution chain.

In a statement today, Swieringa said now that they’ve made significant progress in the network build, they can focus on monetizing the network through retail and enterprise growth and owner economics.

Customers can access the Dish 5G broadband network through Project Genesis, which it says is available to anyone in a qualifying location within the 70% coverage area. The Motorola Edge+ 2023 is available to Project Genesis subscribers and is equipped with three carrier aggregation that supports Bands 29, 66, 70 and 71.

Expectations met 

Dish’s 5G buildout deadline comes as it’s dealing with multiple other challenges, including the effects of February’s cyberattack, customer churn at Boost Mobile and launching the new Boost Infinite postpaid brand.

Leading up to the 11:59 p.m. ET June 14 deadline, Dish executives said they expected to meet the FCC’s buildout deadline. Last month at the Connect (X) conference in New Orleans, Mayo said his team was “busting their tails” to build the network, with about 18,000 5G sites in play as of the end of Q1 2023.

In a note for investors today, New Street Research (NSR) analyst Jonathan Chaplin said the fact that Dish’s VoNR is now working in markets covering 20% of the U.S. population is a positive step for Dish’s network economics, as Dish customers to date typically had to rely on the networks of MVNO partners T-Mobile and AT&T due to the difficulty of handoffs between Dish’s 5G SA network and the other carrier networks.

But the NSR team has been writing for the last several months that Dish would reach this milestone, so it’s not a big change in their calculations about the company. “We think the catalyst is well understood by the market. As such, while we regard the announcement as positive, it is likely to have a limited impact on investor views of the credit or equity beyond the clearing of an overhang,” Chaplin said.

Questions ahead 

Of course, while it’s a big milestone for Dish, analysts continue to question its wireless aspirations. While Dish may be meeting the letter of the law, it’s not yet in practicality operating as a replacement for Sprint as a fourth facilities-based carrier.

In terms of 5G network buildout requirements, “the question is what are they meeting,” said Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. If it’s just a matter of offering a data connection, Dish could easily meet the 70% goal, but if it’s about voice, “I’m not sure,” he said.

Even longer-established operators like T-Mobile are finding challenges deploying VoNR. “Nobody else can do this network-wide,” Entner said, noting that T-Mobile turned on VoNR in only about six markets, and even there, it’s got its own VoLTE as a fallback, which Dish does not.

Next deadline

Dish’s next buildout deadline – reaching 75% of Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) by June 2025 – is a much harder goal, as it requires a lot more capital and densification. “That is the tough one,” Entner said.

Entner said he “absolutely” expects Dish to ask the FCC for more time to meet the 2025 deadline and “if they’re smart,” they’ll ask for an extension that is later than its mandate not to sell certain spectrum.

It’s not clear how much Dish’s meeting of the mandate will change Wall Street’s perspective, as analysts have been downgrading the stock. Last week, S&P Global announced Dish Network would be falling off the S&P 500. Shares have lost more than 50% of their value so far this year.

To be sure, questions about Dish’s intentions in wireless will continue. Dish investors, both bull and bear, have long debated whether Dish will actually follow through with plans to compete in wireless or execute a minimally sufficient build to satisfy the FCC’s buildout timeline, biding time until they’re able to sell spectrum, noted MoffettNathason analyst Craig Moffett in a recent report.

The report noted that actually competing in wireless would be vastly more expensive than minimally satisfying the FCC’s buildout requirements. The questions often turn to: Will Dish try to sell some of its spectrum and if so, who would be interested in buying it and at what price?

“It is not clear whether a spectrum sale would happen at a price high enough to cover all of Dish’s debt, tower lease obligations and MVNO traffic obligations,” Moffett wrote. “Dish’s equity value is balanced on a knife’s edge that depends on an entirely unknowable after-tax price realization of its spectrum portfolio, which could easily be slightly below, or slightly above, their ~$30B debt load.”

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