How Dish Network could shake up your wireless service

The way your service looks in coming years could rest in the hands of a satellite TV provider. Seriously.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
Chris Schneider/Dish

Dish Network was a surprise heavy hitter in the recent government auction for wireless spectrum. But the satellite TV provider doesn't offer wireless service, so what gives?

That's what's left industry observers scratching their heads and consumers wondering if Dish could be their next option for wireless service.

Dish spent $6.2 billion in the Federal Communications Commission's 600 megahertz wireless auction, which ended last week, second only to T-Mobile. This isn't the first time Dish has played in the auction, with the company having accumulated a treasure trove of spectrum in several past auctions.

Those assets, enough to put it on par with a national carrier, could mean Dish plans to offer its own wireless service. Hey, Comcast is already giving it a shot. But given the value of the 600MHz spectrum, which are lower-frequency radio airwaves that're great at ferrying your cat video through walls and across great distances, Dish also could be turning itself into a valuable acquisition target. Some warn, though, that its vast holdings may scare off potential buyers.

"Too much of a good thing can be bad if it reduces the number of strategic options," Amy Yong, an analyst from Macquarie Research, said in a research note this week. Ouch.

Either way, Dish could shake up what your wireless options look like in the years ahead. Its spectrum could bolster the coverage of wireless players like Verizon Wireless or T-Mobile, giving you better indoor signals in more places. Dish breaking out on its own or partnering with Comcast could theoretically give you a more legitimate option outside of the big four national carriers.

It's already a screwy time in the wireless industry. Dominant players AT&T and Verizon are trying to transform themselves into entertainment companies, while Comcast is doing the opposite. T-Mobile, once in last place, now outstrips the rest of the industry in subscriber growth.

Dish said last month in a filing with the FCC (PDF) that it plans to use those licenses to build a network for the internet of things. Analysts have been skeptical of Dish's plan, however, though some are starting to think the company may build its own network.

Dish declined to comment on its plans.

Here's a look at what the possibilities could be for the company, and what it might mean for you.

Acquisition or partnership?

Dish has long been rumored as an acquisition target for a wireless player. But it's never been clear who would buy it. That question has become even tougher to answer since the auction results have been released. Let's take a look at the possibilities.


Rumors have circulated for a while that Verizon may be interested in buying Dish, largely due to its spectrum. But Verizon has made it clear it isn't looking for anymore low-band wireless spectrum. In fact, it sat out the latest auction.

The company is more focused on building its 5G wireless service, which requires higher-frequency spectrum. Verizon may be interested in Dish's Sling TV streaming service though. Verizon hasn't seen much success with its Go90 video service and could beef up its TV offering with Sling to compete more aggressively with AT&T's DirecTV Now service and Comcast.


A deal with T-Mobile might be the least likely pairing for Dish. T-Mobile, after all, just got its fill of spectrum from the same auction. But the company could be interested in Dish's midband spectrum holdings, which work at a higher frequency and are better at offering higher speeds. T-Mobile could find that useful for keeping up with subscriber demand for unlimited data.

T-Mobile might also see Dish's Sling TV service as a great opportunity, Yong said. In a research note published last week, she said T-Mobile could rebrand Dish's Sling TV, which lets you watch live TV over the internet for far less than the cost of a cable subscription. Sling could prove to be more valuable with T-Mobile's stronger brand and customer affinity.


Another possibility is that Dish could get broken up instead of being sold outright. If that were the case, Comcast might be interested in some of its spectrum. Comcast has plans to launch its own wireless service later this year, which will use a combination of its Wi-Fi hotspots and the cellular service it resells from Verizon. There's some chatter that Verizon and Comcast may merge. But if that doesn't happen, and Comcast sees success with its wireless service, it may be in the market for more spectrum. It could buy spectrum from Dish.

Dish as wireless operator

Though it's fun to speculate on deals, analysts believe Dish's shopping spree may've killed the company's chances for a sale or partnership.

"They have self-evidently chosen to pay more for the spectrum than the companies to whom they could eventually sell that spectrum," according to a MoffettNathanson note. "The auction leaves them looking more like a builder than a seller."

It's pretty unlikely that consumers will be buying Dish cell phone service, but you may be connecting other smart devices to its network in the coming years.

A network designed for phone service is possible, but extremely expensive. That's why Dish is likely looking at the internet of things.

Dish already began raising money through a debt offering to build a network. And in March it filed documents with the FCC (PDF) describing its plans to use some of its spectrum holdings to deploy a "5G" network that could be used to connect various machines and devices across the internet.

What would this look like? Dish could sell service to municipalities for internet connected parking meters. It could sell capacity to appliance makers like Samsung or to power companies to help consumers better manage their energy costs. Medical equipment makers or health care systems could use the network for remote patient monitoring.

Dish hasn't ruled out pursuing other partnerships in the meantime. In its filing with the FCC, it said it's still "exploring joint build partnerships that could reduce overall network deployment costs for Dish."

One thing's likely: Whatever Dish ends up doing will probably surprise us all.

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