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Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen says history will vindicate him on 5G

Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen speaking at the University of Colorado in 2012. Photo: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen speaking at the University of Colorado in 2012. Photo: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Charlie Ergen knows there are plenty of people who don't believe Dish has the skill or commitment to truly rival the national wireless carriers. But answering to critics is not where Dish's chairman is putting his energy.

"I don't personally believe we are going to change any skeptics' minds, and we are not going to try to. We're just going to do it. We'll go out and build a 5G city, and then people can see it and see why that is different and better."
— Ergen told me in an interview on Friday

What's happening: As first reported by Axios, Ergen's plan for Dish is to transform the Boost prepaid brand it's getting from Sprint into a full-service wireless effort and then go out and build a nationwide 5G network, one city at a time. Ideally, Ergen wants the first city with Dish's 5G network running by the end of 2020.

Details: Because it has a nationwide roaming agreement with T-Mobile to lean back on, Ergen said the company can take a radically different approach to building out its network.

  • Unlike the existing wireless players who are upgrading an LTE network once centered around voice calling, Ergen believes Dish can be more efficient because it is building a datacentric, software-driven network.
  • As for his lack of experience, Ergen notes people didn't believe he could nab a chunk of the cable TV market either.

Flashback: Ergen said he remembers being at a Chinese space facility in 1995 for the launch of the company's first satellite. "I was reading an analyst report that said Dish would never launch a satellite, and I was looking at it."

Reality check: Ergen does have a track record of beating the odds. But Dish will be starting with a fraction of the customers that even the fourth-ranked carrier Sprint had. And while building a nationwide 5G network from scratch does have some advantages, it will also be extremely expensive.

Follow the money: Ergen said he has enough cash to fund the Boost purchase and the initial network buildout, but acknowledged his plan will eventually require additional funding, though he said he's not worried about finding investors.

  • He notes that nothing in the deal prevents Dish from working with tech giants such as Google and Amazon, who have long craved a bigger piece of the wireless business.

What's next: The DOJ has given its blessing to the T-Mobile-Sprint deal, provided Sprint sell a variety of assets to Dish, including its prepaid business and some spectrum.

  • The FCC is also likely to give its blessing, with chairman Ajit Pai having come out in favor of the transaction even without the Dish deal.
  • However, more than a dozen states have sued to block the deal.