Dish Wireless has spent a fortune building out a nationwide wireless network. But how many people will actually use it when it’s finished?
That’s one of the key questions dogging Dish as the company is set to report its second-quarter results, expected later this month (Update: It lost another 188,000 wireless subscribers). The company is expected to continue seeing declines in its traditional satellite TV business, by far the biggest contributor of revenue. At the same time, its burgeoning wireless business remains an unknown.
The state of Dish is one that’s perplexed industry followers for years. At stake is whether US consumers will have a competitive fourth wireless carrier, which is effective at driving down prices. That’s why the government mandated that Sprint had to sell its Boost prepaid wireless asset to Dish in order to merge with T-Mobile.
For Dish, the move to wireless represents a massive bet that will determine the fate of Dish, which is hanging its future on the transformation. But the company needs to spend more to complete its network and promote it, but is saddled with more than $21 billion in debt. With a network that hardly anyone is using and little visibility in the market, the odds are stacked against the company.
“It’s the most advanced service nobody has heard of,” said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, referring to Dish’s 5G network and little-publicized Project Genesis service.
A spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment, but the company typically wouldn’t comment ahead of the release of its quarterly earnings report.
Waiting on a network
Part of the problem lies in Dish’s track record. The company hoarded wireless spectrum – radio airwaves necessary to ferry data from your phone to a cell tower – for decades, with pushing back promises that it would make use of them with its own wireless network. There was, at one point, a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” dynamic and skepticism when it came to Dish and wireless.
That changed when the Justice Department struck an agreement with T-Mobile and Sprint to complete their merger. Sprint would have to sell its Boost prepaid service to Dish, as well as let Dish use the combined T-Mobile-Sprint network to augment coverage. The other part of the deal were firmer deadlines for Dish to build out its network.
In July 2019, on the heels of the agreement, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen told Axios that he wanted to have Dish’s 5G service running in its first city by late 2020.
That did not happen.
There were, of course, complications with the pandemic. But it wouldn’t be another two years – April 2022 – until Dish launched its 5G service in Las Vegas.
A little more than a year later, in June, is when Dish met its FCC deadline to cover 70% of the nation with its network.
Running on that network is a service launched back in April 2022 called Project Genesis. The fact that it’s virtually unknown to anyone, and that it’s only available on its own site, is the crux of why there are so many questions about the company’s wireless ambitions.
“I was skeptical,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential. “Now I’m dubious.”
Dish’s Project Genesis
Pull up the Project Genesis site and you get a bold proclamation, even if it isn’t necessarily clear.
“Welcome to Project Genesis, the nation’s first cloud-native smart 5G network that changes the way we connect.”
Dig in a little more and you’ll have to put in your location to see if it works. Even if you want to sign up, only one device can tap into those “smart capabilities,” the 2023 Motorola Edge+. You can’t bring in your own device.
Despite being live for more than a year, there’s startlingly little that we know about the service, including the number of subscribers.
“You could fill an arena with the subscribers they have,” Entner estimated.
For most consumers, Dish’s most visible wireless option is Boost.
But a look at its first-quarter results, reported back in May, paint a dour picture. Despite being relatively new in the wireless business, Dish lost 81,000 wireless subscribers as folks fled Boost. The only bright spot: It was far less tragic than the 342,000 subscribers lost a year ago.
Dish ended the first quarter with 7.9 million wireless customers. In comparison, AT&T, the third-largest carrier in the nation, had roughly 90 million prepaid and postpaid phone subscribers.
Those numbers aren’t for show. The massive customer bases of the big three carriers help fund the numerous aspects of a wireless service.
Having a network – which isn’t complete yet – is just one part. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T have a huge network of retail stores, massive advertising campaigns and large call centers fielding customer calls. They’re constantly driving awareness.
Dish doesn’t have any of those other elements.
“Building out the network is the first step and probably the cheapest part,” Entner said. “You need to advertise, and they don’t.”
He noted that 80% of Americans still go to a store to pick out their wireless service, and even the pandemic couldn’t move the needle on that dynamic.
While Boost has 1,500 stores, Dish is looking at an online-first strategy. Last week, Dish partnered with Amazon to offer its Boost Infinite service to Prime customers. A few days later, Boost Infinite is at the top of Amazon’s list for SIM cards, CNET Editor Eli Blumenthal pointed out in a tweet. But he also noted that it had earned a one-star rating with five reviews.
Rock and a Hard Place
The other question is whether Dish has the financial ability to finish building its network, let alone launching a splashy campaign to build awareness.
Dish is wrestling with $21.3 billion in debt, having spent billions building out the 5G network. That kind of tenuous financial state and ever-rising interest rates means significant challenges and expenses in borrowing more money.
In the past, Dish would’ve been able to draw from its once-lucrative satellite TV business. But in the first quarter, Dish saw revenue fall nearly 9% from a year ago as it lost 552,000 pay-TV subscribers.
“It would be a challenge if the network was completely in place and the financing was completely in place,” Greengart said. “But neither of it is true.”
Dish needs to press on, however, because its next deadline to cover 75% of the population comes up in 2025. And while an additional 5% coverage doesn’t seem like much, the buildout gets more expensive and complicated the closer you get to 100%. Missing the deadline could lead to monetary penalties or the loss of spectrum, forcing Dish to keep going.
But it’s unclear how much Dish will actually put into this initiative.
“(Ergen) wants to have success without investing in it,” Entner said.