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Dish chairman: We could have first 5G city up by late 2020

Photo of Dish chairman Charlie Ergen looking up
Dish chairman Charlie Ergen in 2012. Photo: Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Rather than try to convince skeptics he is serious about the wireless business, Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen tells Axios he is going to focus on building a 5G network as fast as possible. Ideally, he said he wants the first city up and running by late next year.

Why it matters: With the deal announced on Friday, Dish has all the spectrum it needs to build a national 5G network, but critics have been skeptical the company has the commitment to do so.

Driving the news: Under a settlement with the Justice Department, Sprint and T-Mobile struck a wide-ranging deal with Dish that will give the satellite TV provider spectrum, Sprint's prepaid business, a national roaming agreement and other components to create what regulators and Dish say will be a fourth national wireless competitor.

In an interview Friday after the deal was announced, Ergen said the first step in his wireless plan will be to make the Boost brand he is acquiring from Sprint more competitive and expand into postpaid business.

  • That's the traditionally more lucrative part of the business, where customers with better credit spend more per month.

Timing: Because Dish is building what is known as a standalone 5G network (not building on top of an existing LTE network), it needs to wait for the next version of the 5G standard, which is due to be approved around the middle of next year.

  • Assuming that happens, Ergen said he would like to have the first city with a Dish 5G network operational about six months later.

Money: Ergen says the company has enough cash to finance the initial part of the T-Mobile deal and network build, but acknowledges Dish will eventually need more money.

  • "We have money on hand today to acquire Boost and start building our network for a couple of years," he said. "We ultimately will need capital."

Flexibility: But while there are restrictions on handing over control of the business to someone else, Ergen said the deal allows Dish the flexibility to partner with others, including a tech company like Amazon or Google.

Experience: Addressing the company's lack of experience running a wireless business, Ergen pointed to the work in recent years to build a narrowband wireless network for IoT devices.

  • "Obviously we have execution risk," he said. "There’s no guarantee we will be successful."
  • But, he notes that the company defied skeptics in building its satellite business, competing against Big Cable and General Motors (which then owned DirecTV).

Skeptics: As for allegations Dish has been gathering spectrum for years without building a network, Ergen said: "We weren’t hoarding spectrum. We were accumulating enough spectrum to go compete agains the industry giants."

  • But at the same time, he said he doubts anything he says will convince those who are betting against Dish.

We'll have more from Ergen in Monday's edition of Login, the Axios Tech Newsletter. You can subscribe to the free daily newsletter here.