Analysts peg voice as potential wrinkle in Dish 5G rollout

By all indications, Dish Network will meet its FCC mandate of offering a 5G network to at least 20% of the U.S. population by June 14. Company executives have said so, and no red flags have gone up to signal otherwise.

If there is any wrinkle, analysts at New Street Research think it exists in the form of voice, rather than 5G broadband service.

The analysts provided an update Wednesday after the FCC last week released a notice opening a docket designed to monitor whether Dish is in compliance with the T-Mobile/Sprint merger conditions, including the one about reaching at least 20% of the U.S. population by June 14.

“Our understanding is that making standalone 5G voice services (called VoNR or ‘voice over new radio’) work seamlessly has proven challenging for the industry at large,” the New Street analysts wrote. “While VoNR is working for Dish in Las Vegas, our sense is that it has been tough to optimize it in other markets, and specifically, to accomplish seamless handoffs between VoNR on Dish’s network and VoLTE on either AT&T or T-Mobile’s network when a customer moves beyond Dish’s network coverage and onto the MVNOs.”

A Dish spokesperson told Fierce today that the Las Vegas deployment uses VoNR technology. The spokesperson declined to comment on the status of voice services and use of VoNR in other markets.

MVNOs & voice

Incumbent carriers in the U.S. still rely on voice services using VoLTE, the LTE-based technology. By way of example, the New Street analysts noted that they think T-Mobile still relies exclusively on VoLTE despite having deployed a 5G standalone core, showing just how challenging it is to institute voice services for 5G.  

Therefore, they think Dish is likely to continue to rely on MVNOs for voice services even within the 20% population coverage areas after June 14. They noted that on Dish’s Analyst Day in early May, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen seemed to confirm this by saying the initial offering would be “for data” and that it would be “less robust at the outset” than he had hoped.

“Based on our read of Dish’s commitment to offer '5G Broadband Service,' it seems unlikely to us that Dish will be considered to have failed to achieve 20% coverage if they rely on the MVNOs for voice services within that coverage at the outset, while only using their own network for broadband services,” New Street wrote. “Still, if complaints about Dish meeting its commitments arise, we suspect they will be about this issue, rather than about whether the network covers 20% of the population.”

Others echoed the sentiment that Dish is having trouble with VoNR but will still meet its FCC requirements. 

With regard to voice over 5G, “it doesn’t work right now,” said industry analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. “There’s a lot of chatter in the vendor community that part of it is the latency,” and that accelerator cards aren’t yet available.

That said, Dish will meet its regulatory requirements, and running into a blip like this isn’t exactly unheard of when considering Dish is deploying a cloud-based, virtualized network using open Radio Access Network (RAN) principles, none of which has been done before on a scale like this in the U.S.

“It’s working on the bleeding edge of technology,” Entner said. “The technology is just not there yet. They’ll keep plugging along on this… that’s why you have roaming partners.”