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Dish Expands 5G, But There's a Catch: Here's What You Need to Know

dish-wireless-mobile-network-logos-2021-for-phones-02
Sarah Tew/CNET

What's happening

Dish, the fourth US carrier, says it expanded 5G in 120 cities.

Why it matters

Dish took on its fourth carrier role when Sprint and T-Mobile merged, and has been under the gun by the FCC to roll out the service. It's supposed to a viable competitor to its bigger rivals.

What's next

Dish will still need to provide more clarity on the service, which is still invite only for now.

Dish Network may finally be on its way to offering a competitive 5G alternative to the big three national carriers. On Tuesday, the satellite TV provider updated its Project Genesis site to say 5G service is live in more than 120 cities, marking a claim of nationwide coverage amid a Federal Communications Commission deadline to roll out service to at least a fifth of the country's population. 

The announcement, a surprise change from earlier in the morning, when Las Vegas was the sole live city, could signal that the company is finally getting serious about the wireless business. Dish acquired wireless spectrum for years, but very little of a wireless network materialized. Then in 2020, Dish entered the mobile market by acquiring some of Sprint's mobile licenses, which Sprint was shedding as part of its merger with T-Mobile. The complex transaction suddenly made Dish the country's fourth-biggest carrier and led to the creation of Dish Wireless service.

But the FCC had a stipulation. To ensure competition, the regulatory agency required Dish to make sure 20% of Americans would be covered by its 5G network by June 14. The company said in a Wednesday release that the expansion exceeds that threshold. The "beta list" for the service is only available on an invite-basis only, and the company has been tightlipped about how many people will actually be able to access it.  

Dish wasn't available for comment, but Stephen Stokols, CEO of Dish-owned Boost Mobile, tweeted that 5G service is now live in 120 cities and linked to the Project Genesis site. When reached for comment, the FCC clarified that Dish is required to file status reports to the agency, with the first due on July 14. 

"Consumers benefit when there is more competition in our wireless industry," an FCC spokesperson said over email. "We are closely monitoring DISH's 5G build out to ensure that they are meeting all of their requirements in the law."

A host of issues has conspired to trip up Dish. The company acknowledged during an earnings call earlier this year that it had underestimated how much work it would take to get its own 5G network up and running. Supply chain issues only made the situation worse.

It's unclear whether Dish will suffer any consequences if it ends up missing the deadline. Neither Dish nor the FCC responded to a request for comment.

Here's what you need to know about Dish's 5G plans:

Why did the FCC put this requirement on Dish? 

The deadline is the result of a huge shift in the US mobile industry two years ago, when T-Mobile and Sprint combined in a $26.5 billion deal. The FCC nearly quashed the deal out of concern that it would lead to market concentration by taking one carrier out of the market. Only AT&T, Verizon and the new T-Mobile would remain. 

But Dish, which tried to add mobile service to its satellite TV offerings a decade ago, saw the carrier consolidation as an opportunity to become a mobile player. The company paid $5 billion for Boost Mobile, Sprint's prepaid mobile brand, as well as Sprint's 800MHz wireless spectrum specifically for 5G. Dish also secured rights to use part of T-Mobile's 5G network.

Dish still needed to build out its own 5G network, a task that it started mostly from scratch. To ensure Dish mobile customers would have solid service, the FCC originally set March 7, 2020, as the deadline for the company to have its 5G network up and running. The FCC also stipulated that coverage should reach 20% of the US population. 

The deadline, however, was pushed back at Dish's request several times. The latest deadline was set for June 14, 2022. Dish Chairman and co-founder Charlie Ergen decided against requesting another extension and expected that the carrier would meet the FCC deadline, the Fierce Wireless news site reported in May.

Did Dish make the deadline?

Dish updated its Project Genesis website the day of the deadline to say its 5G network has reached over 120 cities. But we don't know how many people in those cities are covered by the network, and ergo whether Dish has met its goal of covering 20% of the US population by June 14. According to the FCC's terms, failing to meet the deadline could result in Dish's license for wireless spectrums being revoked and paying fines of up to $2.2 billion, the Light Reading news site reported earlier this year. 

How far along is Dish's 5G network?

In early May, Dish made its 5G service publicly available in Las Vegas. Customers sign up for the service through "Project Genesis," an early access program that costs $30 per month and currently is only available on Motorola Edge Plus handsets. (The service plans accommodate other phones in the future.)

In February, Dish had said its 5G service would be live in more than two dozen cities by the June deadline. And after the Las Vegas service launched to the public, the carrier published a list of 113 cities it planned to include in Project Genesis. As recently as its first quarter earnings call in May, Dish had said it remained confident that it would activate 5G service in enough cities to reach 20% of the US population by the June deadline. 

The carrier didn't make public where 5G service was live beyond its first city until today, when it suddenly listed over 120 more cities that now have active service on the Project Genesis site. The service remains invite-only, and we don't know how much area in each city is covered.

In addition to securing Sprint's 800MHz range, Dish has also bid in several separate auctions to secure 5G spectrum licenses. These include spending $7.3 billion in January on midband 5G in the 3.45GHz spectrum and $913 million on the so-called C-band 5G in 2020. Combined, the chunks of connected 5G spectrum will serve as the backbone of its service. 

While Dish can use some of T-Mobile's 5G spectrum for years to come as part of agreements between the carriers, Dish also paid AT&T at least $5 billion in July 2021 for a 10-year contract to lean on the latter's 5G network while it builds out its own infrastructure.

What took Dish so long?

Unlike other carriers, which built their 5G networks on existing 4G LTE, Dish has more or less been building its network from scratch. It's also building the service on OpenRAN, a flexible type of cellular network that uses infrastructure from multiple vendors. 

Dish executives have acknowledged that they'd underestimated the work it would take to build their network and that they hadn't anticipated supply chain issues. 

How can you sign up for Dish 5G?

Right now, you can only sign up for Dish 5G's Project Genesis service by getting on a "beta list" of subscribers. First, check if you're located in any of the over 120 cities with 5G service. Then register by entering your email and address on the Project Genesis member site. Since the program is invite-only, there's no guarantee that applicants will be given the chance to subscribe.

Those in the Project Genesis Beta can use the Samsung Galaxy S22 and/or the NetGear 5G hotspot to access Dish's 5G network, while those in Las Vegas can use the Motorola Edge Plus smartphone. More devices will be made available later in the year.

Update, 1 pm PT and 3:45 pm PT: To include more details of the Project Genesis site and the 120 new cities.