May 20, 2022 - Economy & Business

DISH's crypto investments aim to expand its 5G reach

Photo illustration of Chris Ergen of Dish Network
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Courtesy Dish Network

DISH Network, the wireless company, has already been through one major technological transition, and it's betting that cryptocurrency is part of its next one.

Driving the news: DISH recently invested in and partnered with two crypto-enabled grassroots wireless networks, fueling its long-term aim of becoming a competitor in 5G wireless services. "We don't have a venture capital arm," Chris Ergen, DISH's head of wireless innovation, tells Axios in an interview. "If you see us investing, it's more strategically central to what we're doing."

Details: Last month DISH invested in Pollen, which only launched in January, and previously announced a partnership with Helium, a very similar network that's already reached thousands of cities.

  • Both Helium and Pollen incentivize people to set up wireless nodes that provide last-mile access to the internet using cryptocurrency.

How it works: Networks like Helium pay people in cryptocurrency for hosting nodes that can receive wireless messages and send them to the internet. The nodes also check in with each other to verify each other's locations (which can be a crucial piece of data for internet-of-things devices).

  • Helium started primarily helping devices send low-data messages back to the internet (tracking things like lost pets or rented bicycles).
  • Helium announced support for 5G services last year. Pollen launched with 5G support. Both make use of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS).

For DISH, such partnerships are about extending their range. Ergen compared it to roaming from the early days of cellular.

What's next: Ergen believes these kinds of networks are going to give developers a whole new design space to build on. "The smart network is akin to the transition you had when you went from the flip phone to the smart phone, but at the network level," he said.

  • Context: Dish is best known, today, for providing subscription TV services via satellite — which is still the bulk of its revenue, but even further back it was in the hardware business, related to those giant dishes people used to have in their backyards.

Ergen remembers discovering Bitcoin when it was trading around $100 and feeling like he could see the next big shift coming. He wasn't working for the company yet, but he's the son of founders.

  • "As somebody born in 1987, I'm probably one of the last generation that was recording radio songs onto mix tapes, and then Napster came along," he said.
  • "It's internet money," Ergen said. "Bitcoin seemed like something akin to those early days of filesharing and the internet."
  • DISH started accepting BTC in 2014.

The next transition is to provide data services wirelessly. "DISH has been investing in spectrum for about 13 years. We've invested a little north of $30 billion," Ergen explained.

  • Leasing public spectrum is a key asset any company needs to compete in wireless.
  • Ergen believes the company also has an advantage in their offering is all virtualized, running over the cloud.

State of play: DISH just lit up its first city, Las Vegas.

Bottomline: "We are moving to a place where data is the core business, how long it takes to get there — how long the pay TV business has in its current form — remains to be seen," Ergen said. "Providing internet and providing data connectivity to people and things is the next 50 years of this company."

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