Dish’s Mayo: So far, so good on meeting 5G buildout deadlines with $10B

DENVER—Several years ago when Robert McDowell interviewed Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen on stage at the Wireless Industry Association (WIA) Connect(X) trade show, Ergen’s statements about the company’s cap ex plans made headlines.

Ergen wasn’t here on Tuesday, but Dave Mayo, the person leading Dish’s network build to become the country’s fourth facilities-based wireless operator, was here to share the Denver area-based company’s latest progress.

Just to set the record straight, the cap ex number hasn’t changed a bit, he said during a “fireside chat” with McDowell, a former FCC commissioner. Dish will build out its network to meet the FCC’s threshold with the $10 billion number it previously stated.  

He reiterated that Dish is on target to offer broadband service to 20% of the population of the U.S. by June 14, 2022. By June 14 of 2023, Dish needs to cover 70% of the population. After that, the next deadline is to cover 75% of the population in each of the 400 or so Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) by mid-2025.

About two years ago, the first thing the Dish team did was evaluate what they needed to do to reach their buildout mandates. For the 20% deadline, they’ve been working primarily with co-location sites, to the degree that 97% of the build will be co-located, which enables it to move much faster.

Geographically, the build plan is centered around population density. That’s pretty much the U.S. coasts, along with some sprinkles throughout the middle, he said. It also became apparent that there were markets where they had relatively high co-location rates, and those are markets in the 20%, like Dallas, Houston and Cleveland.

They designed their footprint to cover the big metropolitan areas to minimize handovers to roaming partners so that the majority of calls will stay on Dish’s network rather than being transferred to a partner network. “It keeps the network more ubiquitous and more seamless for our customers,” leading to a better customer experience, he said.

But it will use roaming with T-Mobile and AT&T. The deal with T-Mobile was largely structured as part of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger agreement with the U.S. government. After that, Dish separately negotiated a 10-year roaming deal with AT&T.

“We’re building a great network,” he said. “I like to think about it as a wireless, cloud-based network for CIOs,” which is very unlike its competitors that have legacy switches. Those legacy switches really prevent a carrier from being able to put certain network elements on customer premises, such as a campus or factory.

Incumbent operators basically won’t be able to replicate what Dish is doing, he said.

One other thing the folks at Dish would like to see: Rule changes so that the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) is able to operate at a higher power level, Mayo said. Dish, bidding under the name Wetterhorn Wireless, was the second largest winning bidder in the CBRS auction in 2020.

During Dish’s analyst day meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month, Mayo, who spent about 20 years at T-Mobile before joining Dish in 2020, outlined what it is Dish is doing to meet its buildout deadlines. At that time, he said being the last to build a network isn’t necessarily a bad thing because they can learn from the mistakes that everybody else has made.

Soon after he arrived at Dish, Mayo started building a leadership team. “I knew we had to do this on a localized basis,” he said. Within seven months, in the midst of Covid, he hired 36 market leaders and four regional leaders. “They’re scrappy industry veterans who’ve all been to this movie before. They’ve all done it. It’s great.”