T-Mobile, Dish go to battle over Boost, CDMA

If there’s a “war” going on between T-Mobile and Dish Network, then Peter Adderton is right in the middle of it. In fact, he’s been accused of instigating it.

Here’s a review of the latest developments in the ongoing dispute between T-Mobile and Dish. Last week, Fox News interviewed T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert about its 5G rollout and near the end of the segment, Liz Claman asked about T-Mobile shutting off the old Sprint 3G CDMA network. T-Mobile, according to Dish, is conveniently waiting in the wings to grab Boost Mobile customers as its own when their CDMA handsets no longer work.

Sievert, after characterizing Adderton as a guy looking for a little attention, responded that of about 9 million Boost customers, almost 90% of them will already have a handset that’s compatible with the T-Mobile network by the end of this year. “Nobody’s having anything unplugged,” he said.

By the time the network transition happens next year, there will be customers in the “single digits” percentage who are affected by the shutdown. Traditionally what happens during these transitions is the operator, in this case Dish, “just takes care of that with incentives and promotions,” he said, adding that what’s in the public interest is getting to 5G as quickly as possible. “Everybody’s a winner and nobody’s a loser.”

RELATED: T-Mobile to shut down legacy MetroPCS CDMA network on June 21

Dish bought Boost as part of the remedy in the government agreeing to the $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Now Dish is facing a massive problem getting the Boost customers, many of them low-income, equipped with compatible handsets when the CDMA network shuts down, something Dish Chairman and co-founder Charlie Ergen referenced in the company’s most recent earnings call.  

RELATED: Dish sheds 363K wireless subs, warns of T-Mobile 3G shutdown

Boost provided the following statement in response to Sievert’s comments from last week.  

"A majority of our 9 million Boost subscribers have devices that rely on Sprint's CDMA network and will be harmed if T-Mobile prematurely shuts down that network. Mr. Sievert's statement on Friday that 90% of those subscribers will have a T-Mobile compatible device by year's end reinforces our view that they are planning to directly attack Boost customers with an accelerated shutdown in order to churn customers directly to T-Mobile,” said Stephen Stokols, EVP Boost Mobile.

“As discussed during our conference call, we believe this is highly anti-competitive. We hope that T-Mobile reconsiders its decision to shut down the CDMA network prematurely so 100% of Boost subscribers will not be impacted and DISH can continue providing consumers with competitive choices," Stokols added.

RELATED: What T-Mobile 3G CDMA shutdown means for Boost Mobile

According to T-Mobile, it gave Dish notice back in October 2020 that it would be switching the network, and it insists that’s enough time for Dish to convert its customers.

“The phase out of 2G/3G technologies across the wireless industry is a natural evolution. In T-Mobile’s case, this transition is essential to the creation of the ultra-high capacity 5G network we have committed to deliver for customers and to the government. We all want to make sure no customers are left behind, and we are following a tried and true process to achieve that goal,” T-Mobile said in a statement provided to Fierce.

“Everything we are doing here is exactly consistent with the agreement that DISH made with us a year and a half ago, and we have been very proactive and transparent about the timing for this transition with all of our MVNOs, including DISH. We gave DISH notice in October 2020 for a January 1st 2022 transition – far more than the required 6 month contractual agreement,” T-Mobile said. 

“Our agreement with DISH is also clear that they are responsible for migrating Boost customers, just as we are responsible for migrating Sprint customers, and we are confident that DISH is already making plans to take good care of their impacted customers prior to the transition date. Given the advance notice that they received, just a small percentage of Boost customers should need to upgrade their handsets by the end of this year, and typically those customers would be supported with incentives and promotions to get their handsets upgraded,” T-Mobile’s statement concluded.

As for whether T-Mobile will be moving all of its own CDMA customers to a newer network by the start of 2022, a spokesperson told Fierce that T-Mobile will be migrating customers by January 1, 2022, and it’s planning to offer incentives for customers to upgrade old, incompatible phones.

Adderton makes waves

Adderton, the original founder of Boost, which eventually was sold to Nextel Communications, remains a big proponent for the independent dealers who sell Boost in thousands of stores across the country. But he may be an even bigger proponent for their customers right now.  

Adderton said there’s a big difference between moving a postpaid customer, of which the carrier has a lot of information, versus a prepaid customer, and Dish is getting thrown a curve ball when it hasn’t even owned Boost for a full year yet.

“This is not about Dish and Charlie Ergen. This is about making sure that those customers aren’t disrupted any more than they need to be,” he told Fierce. “It’s arrogant, and it’s not arrogant against Charlie Ergen and Dish… It’s against customers who had no choice in this merger.”

“5G has become the get-out-of-jail card for all the carriers,” whether it’s overspending or cutting off Boost customers. “It doesn’t give you a pass, because most of these customers don’t even care about 5G. They just need connectivity,” he said.

Adderton said he didn’t start the war but brought attention to it. “They’re saying I started it, but I think, more importantly, I highlighted it,” he said. “I highlighted, as I have been for the last three years, exactly the playbook that T-Mobile would use, and here they are.”

'High-wire act' 

It’s a quandary. Does Dish move the Boost customers with CDMA handsets over to LTE before they ultimately end up with 5G handsets? Dish is using T-Mobile’s network in an MVNO arrangement, but Dish’s own 5G network, which provides owner’s economics, won’t be ready in time for the CDMA transition if it occurs, as stated, by January 1, 2022.

In contrast, prepaid rivals Metro by T-Mobile and AT&T’s Cricket brand are touting deals for 5G phones, according to Jeff Moore, principal of Wave7 Research. At Boost, “5G is so not a thing,” he said, noting it’s only available with two high-end handset variants. “5G is just not something we’re hearing about at Boost. At Metro and Cricket, we are.”

In early 2021, Metro by T-Mobile offered the OnePlus Nord N10 5G as a free 5G phone for switchers and Wave7’s checks indicate it did “really well,” he said, adding that it’s no longer free as of this month. 

As Dish prepares for the CDMA network shutdown, “that’s going to be a high-wire act to watch this year,” Moore said, including if or when regulators get involved.