It’s time to lower your expectations for Dish’s 5G

Light Reading
by Mike Dano
Jul 13, 2021

Dish Network is mere weeks away from launching its first 5G market. The Las Vegas launch represents a pivotal event in the company’s slow but steady progress into the US mobile market.

However, a number of top industry analysts – as well as executives from Dish itself – are warning that the company’s initial foray into 5G probably won’t blow anyone’s socks off.

“Dish must build out its network to satisfy the FCC [buildout requirements] and keep its [spectrum] licenses, so it will build out its triband network,” explained analyst Joe Madden with Mobile Experts in response to questions from Light Reading. “However, the limited bandwidth of each chunk of spectrum will result in a network that carries less capacity than the wide bands to be used by T-Mobile and Verizon (2.5GHz and 3.7GHz, respectively).

Others agree.

“Dish isn’t going to differentiate with data speeds,” wrote analyst Mike Thelander of Signals Research Group in response to questions from Light Reading. “They will do it with the services they offer. Their use of cloud infrastructure and standalone 5G will be key to their ability to deliver differentiated services that target specific use cases in which high throughput isn’t needed (low latency, high reliability, etc., will be where they can potentially differentiate).”

Peak theoretical speeds vs. real-world speeds

Thelander’s firm routinely conducts deep, detailed tests of wireless networks around the world, and he therefore has a firm grasp of the kinds of network speeds that can be provided based on an operator’s spectrum holdings. After all, the 3GPP’s 5G specifications ensure a roughly standardized approach to network deployments, thus mostly eliminating the possibility of technological surprises.

And, according to Thelander’s guesswork, Dish’s 5G network in Las Vegas will probably provide speeds around 100 Mbit/s.

Thelander calculated that Dish will allocate around 30MHz of its spectrum holdings for downlink connections and 25MHz for uplink connections. (Dish confirmed earlier this year to Light Reading that its initial radios won’t support its newer spectrum holdings like 3.5GHz CBRS). If Dish applies technologies like 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM, coupled with carrier aggregation, the company could theoretically achieve download speeds up to 400 Mbit/s.

“Basically, the channel conditions would need to be better than pristine and you’d need to be the only user in the network,” he wrote of that theoretical download speed. He added that 400Mbit/s “is HIGHLY unlikely in 2021 due to chipset limitations and the selection of infrastructure vendors.” Instead, he said he expects a relatively simple network configuration without advances like carrier aggregation, in which case he said he expects speeds around 100 Mbit/s but not over 200 Mbit/s.

To put those figures into perspective, network-monitoring firm OpenSignal recently reported that T-Mobile provides nationwide average 5G download speeds of around 87 Mbit/s, slightly ahead of the 52 Mbit/s speeds provided by AT&T and Verizon.

In Las Vegas specifically, RootMetrics recently reported that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile all already provide speeds around 40 Mbit/s in the city. And those networks are already loaded with what are likely tens of thousands of customers.

“Execution risk”

Indeed, Dish officials have already been working to temper expectations about the company’s initial 5G launches.

“I’m sure that things won’t go smooth, whether it be COVID, supply chain or the actual execution of taking things from the laboratory and then deploying them in Las Vegas and multiple cities over the next few months,” Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen said during the company’s April quarterly conference call. “We’re going to have some – some stuff is not going to work. And having been through this kind of scale before, and we just have to fix it.”

He added: “We’re all confident today. And then as soon as we light up Las Vegas, we’re probably going to be less confident the next day. That’s the way my experience is. And then we’ll dig in and fix the problems and we’ll be patting ourselves in the back, hopefully. But it’s execution risk.” And during Dish’s quarterly conference call in February, Ergen went even further: “Certainly, speeds are important,” he said, acknowledging that not everybody needs “a Lamborghini that goes 280 miles an hour … I think as long as we make something that goes 100 miles an hour, we’ll be in pretty good shape. So I think we’ll look at consistency.”

But Ergen said Dish plans to stick with it. “We’re good at execution. Transition’s tough. Execution is hard work.”

Dish executives including Ergen have consistently argued that the company doesn’t necessarily need to compete on network speeds alone. Instead, Dish has been slowly but surely composing a 5G sales pitch that involves security and flexibility. For example, the company has argued that its use of open RAN technology coupled with its selection of a number of US-based vendors will make its network more secure than those of its rivals. Further, Dish has said its plan to use the standalone version of 5G – which won’t be burdened with a legacy 4G network – will allow it to offer advanced services like network slicing.

“By bringing together innovations such as the distributed cloud, edge computing and network slicing, our software-based network could provide the DoD a customizable, secure network solution on our commercially-deployed spectrum bands,” Dish wrote to the US Department of Defense (DoD) last year in an attempt to gain government business. “Access and capacity to the network resources could be either dedicated or shared, or multiple network slices could be established with different service level agreements.”

Finally, Dish is widely expected to undercut its rivals on pricing – perhaps significantly. After all, the company will have a completely unloaded network and investors hungry for signs of 5G successes.