Analyst: Dish deal ‘terrible’ for AT&T

If you want to stir up folks in the wireless industry, just utter the words: “AT&T has let Dish off the hook.” That’s what long-time analyst Craig Moffett did on Monday, and a lot of people took notice.

In analyzing Dish Network’s new network services agreement with AT&T, which guarantees AT&T at least $5 billion in wholesale revenue over 10 years, MoffettNathanson Research said the key is duration.

With a two-year “transition period” on top, it is arguably more like a 12-year deal, and that’s a “huge, game-changing win” for Dish, he said. What matters is not the wholesale revenues that T-Mobile loses but the competitive damage done to the industry by enabling Dish to be a hybrid mobile network operator/MVNO “indefinitely,” he said.

Moffett boiled it down thusly: “We can’t stress enough what a windfall this is for Dish,” he wrote. “And what a terrible decision it is for AT&T… The big takeaway here is that AT&T has all but assured Dish’s survival, and as a much more disruptive and dangerous competitor than would otherwise have been the case.”

RELATED: Dish signs $5B MVNO deal with AT&T

The comments came after Dish announced, through its own press release and an 8-K filing, that AT&T will be Dish’s MVNO network partner. AT&T replaces T-Mobile, whose acrimonious relationship with Dish has been widely reported despite Dish’s role in getting the merger with Sprint approved. A large part of that rancor is due to T-Mobile’s plans to shut down its CDMA network by January 2022, leaving a good portion of Dish’s Boost Mobile customers in the lurch. 

For years, Dish has acquired licensed spectrum without building out a network to show for it. That has rankled, to no end, wireless carriers that have spent billions on wireless spectrum and built out bona fide networks while Dish’s spectrum sat idle. To say that AT&T “let Dish off the hook” is like throwing gasoline on a bonfire.  

“By allowing Dish to compete as a hybrid MNO/MVNO, AT&T has allowed Dish the same opportunity to arbitrage network costs that Verizon’s ‘perpetual and irrevocable’ deal affords the cable industry. Just as Cable can build out facilities in dense (low cost/high return) areas and leave the low density (high cost/low return) areas to Verizon, now Dish, too, can build only in high density areas, leaving the rural areas – where much of the heavy lifting is done – to AT&T,” Moffett wrote. “That the deal also allows for in-region roaming to fill-in areas when Dish’s own facilities don’t have sufficient coverage – all those high density dead spots – is icing on the cake. We can’t stress enough what a windfall this is for Dish. And what a terrible decision it is for AT&T.”

Under the terms of the consent decree between Dish, T-Mobile, Sprint, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the FCC, Dish is obligated to build out wireless facilities covering 70% of the U.S. population by 2025. That’s not particularly challenging given that the first 70% of the population lives on just 2.9% or so of the U.S. landmass, Moffett noted. The hard part has been what comes after that.

But Dish isn’t off the hook, said industry analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Dish is required to offer 5G broadband service to at least 75% of the population in each PEA no later than June 14, 2025, according to the FCC. That’s not a slam dunk by any means, and “that is a problem,” Entner said. Providing coverage in those PEAs is a big challenge, and Entner noted that under the Biden Administration, all signs indicate they’re not going to grant leniency to Dish.  

Bill Ho, principal of 556 Ventures, said he sees Moffett’s point. To some extent, Dish is getting a longer runway. “It’s like the leopard hasn’t changed its spots in terms of delay, delay, delay,” he said.

However, the big question is: Will Dish build out its 5G network as required? “I think so because they’ve got their eggs in the Amazon basket,” Ho said. “They are an essential part of the whole Dish future machine.” Pragmatically, “they have to prove themselves. They have to build a network out.”  

In the “positives” column for AT&T, it gains future wholesale revenue, presumably for 10 years, and takes it away from arch-rival T-Mobile. AT&T also gains access to Dish’s spectrum in certain markets, and while the primary purpose is to support Dish’s customers, what’s to stop AT&T from also using it to support AT&T customers?, Ho asked. 

Lightshed Partners analysts Walter Piecyk and Joe Galone also see positives for AT&T. The agreement provides a “sizeable new revenue opportunity for AT&T,” they wrote, noting the $2.4 billion that Dish currently pays for Boost Mobile usage would be high-margin revenue for AT&T. “We expect this to more than offset the wholesale revenue it might lose to Verizon upon closing the TracFone deal. AT&T will also benefit from any roaming traffic generated from the 5G applications serviced by Dish’s new network.”

There’s the prospect of leasing Dish’s Band 66 spectrum, which could be deployed in mere days and has been supported in the iPhone since 2017, they point out. AT&T could tap into that mid-band spectrum, making it better able to compete with T-Mobile’s 2.5 GHz spectrum and Verizon’s C-band deployments.

Meanwhile, “AT&T’s use of Dish’s spectrum and Dish’s use of AT&T’s improved network would substantially improve the performance for Dish customers during the early years, increasing its ability to compete,” the Lightshed analysts said.