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N.Y. Regulator Hammers Spectrum for Fake Ads, Intentionally Deceptive and Misleading Conduct

New York’s top telecommunications regulator has called Charter Communications a purveyor of fake ads, deception, and broken promises and has again called into question how much longer the company should be allowed to do business in New York State.

The New York State Department of Public Service/Public Service Commission today sent a letter to Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge condemning Spectrum’s false and misleading advertising campaigns and the ongoing deception of New York consumers about its expansion efforts. The letter warned Rutledge Charter must immediately cease and desist airing fake ads about the company’s efforts to expand critical broadband service across the state. The letter also warns that if the misrepresentations and unacceptable way Spectrum conducts its business in New York does not stop, the company could find itself out of business in New York State.

“The situation regarding Charter/Spectrum is getting more serious with each passing day,” Department CEO John B. Rhodes said. “Not only has the company failed to meet its obligations to build out its cable system as required, it is now making patently false and misleading claims to consumers that it has met those obligations without in any way acknowledging the findings of the Public Service Commission to the contrary. Access to broadband is essential for economic development and social equity. Charter/Spectrum’s intentional deception of New Yorkers must end now.”

So far, Charter has ignored the Public Service Commission’s June 14 order demanding Charter indicate full and unconditional acceptance of the 2016 merger agreement and the terms it contained. The deadline for Charter or its attorneys to respond is this Thursday, June 28, 2018. If the deadline passes with no response, the Commission warned it may rescind, modify, or amend the approval order granting the merger, file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of New York to potentially cancel the merger, and fine Charter for being out of compliance with state law.

Letter from New York regulators to Charter Communications (click image to download or view complete letter).

Charter’s Fake Ads

Rhodes

The letter accuses Rutledge of knowingly misleading New York customers in its advertising and printed materials that claim Charter has fully complied with — and exceeded — its commitments to New York under a merger agreement with the state allowing Charter to acquire Time Warner Cable systems. The letter emphatically states these representations are demonstrably and materially false.

State regulators pointed to Charter’s historic and systematic pattern of false advertising, noting a 2017 lawsuit filed by New York’s Attorney General over the company’s inability to provide advertised speeds has survived several company challenges in court and is moving forward.

The Merger Itself is in Peril

Charter will face the possibility of additional legal troubles as the PSC refers Spectrum’s latest conduct to the Attorney General’s office for possible further legal action. State regulators also suggested Charter was materially deceiving investors in violation of federal securities laws by not disclosing the company’s failure to honor its commitments to New York and warning investors the merger itself was now in significant peril if it is revoked in New York.

Regulators have also put Charter executives on notice that in advance of a possible penalty action by the Commission against the company directly, it further demanded that Spectrum produce records regarding its false representations and preserve all documents, including email, text messages, voice mail, recordings, and other documentation relating to its advertising claims.

A Record of Failure in New York

According to a PSC investigation and a Public Service Commission order, Spectrum missed its required December 16, 2017 build-out commitment to extend its network to pass additional residences and businesses by 12,245 passings. Spectrum also failed to cure, as required, its earlier failure by March 16, 2018. For these two failures, Spectrum was ordered by the Public Service Commission to forfeit $2 million. These failures came on top of earlier failures by Spectrum to meet its commitments. The PSC argues Spectrum has not met a single build-out deadline since the approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable in 2016.

The PSC stated that, instead of working to meet its commitments to New York, Charter executives have ignored state regulators as Spectrum knowingly continued to advertise and publish false claims that the company is exceeding its mid-December 2017 commitment made to New York by more than 6,000 locations and is on track to extend the reach of advanced broadband network to 145,000 unserved or underserved locations by May 2020. Both claims are patently false, claims the PSC.

“Spectrum’s failure to meet its build-out commitments hurts unserved and underserved New Yorkers, leaving them without a key public utility service crucial to their future success and well-being,” the regulator wrote.

“Spectrum’s publication of claims that it knows are false harm all consumers who rely on honest and accurate information in choosing suppliers from among competitors,” the PSC wrote. “And when Spectrum continues to advertise and publish false claims even after being directed not to by its governmental regulator, it demonstrates deliberate disregard and lack of respect for the Public Service  Commission, the rule of law, and regulation in New York State. Accordingly, in the name of customers and potential customers, the Department called on Spectrum to set the record straight by advertising and publishing the truth that the company has been found by the Public Service Commission to have failed to keep its buildout commitment to New York State.”

Charter Communications produced this video incorporating similar elements used in its advertising targeting New York consumers. Charter does not mention its investment in rural broadband in New York is not altruistic. It was a core condition the company agreed to as part of a settlement with the New York Public Service Commission to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable in 2016. (1:36)

Telcos Pile Up Debt From Mergers & Acquisitions While Stalling Fiber Upgrades

Spending priorities: mergers & acquisitions, not upgrades.

Since 2012, two of the country’s largest phone companies spent enough money — $281.4 billion — to wire at least three-quarters of the  nation with fiber-to-the-home service and deliver vastly improved rural internet access to the rest of the country. Instead of doing that, AT&T and Verizon used the money to buy their competitors and content creators including AOL and Yahoo.

A 2017 Deloitte Consulting analysis estimates the United States will need between $130 and $150 billion in investment over the next 5–7 years to upgrade at least 75% of homes and businesses to fiber to the home service, with the remaining 25% serviced by technologies including 5G that are capable of delivering broadband speeds greater than the federal minimum standard of 25/3 Mbps.

AT&T could almost deliver the country a major broadband upgrade all by itself, having spent $138 billion on mergers and acquisitions in the past six years. Verizon could have easily handled the entire cost, but instead spent its $143.4 billion on business deals, including $130 billion to buy out former Verizon Wireless partner Vodafone. Among independent phone companies, things look equally bad. Frontier Communications is saddled with so much debt after acquiring former AT&T customers in Connecticut and Verizon customers in more than a dozen states, it has been forced to suspend its shareholder dividend and has been only able to make token investments in network upgrades for its mostly copper wire infrastructure in its original “legacy” service areas and a mixture of copper and fiber in acquired service areas. Both CenturyLink and Windstream have refocused many of their business activities on the commercial services marketplace, including the sale of hosting, business IT services, and cloud server networks.

More recently, both AT&T and Verizon have raced into content company acquisitions, buying up AOL, Yahoo, and Time Warner to offer their respective customers additional content. The phone companies are diversifying their business interests away from simply offering phone lines and internet access. At the same time, many of these acquisitions are depleting resources that could be spent on critical network upgrades.

The article in Light Reading claims the telecom industry’s traditional financial model of borrowing money to build networks and upgrade others is broken, because telecom companies now prefer to spend money acquiring other companies instead. Although AT&T has, in recent years, been more aggressive than Verizon in deploying fiber to home service, both companies have resisted committing large amounts of capital to a territory-wide fiber buildout, preferring to spend smaller sums to incrementally upgrade their networks in selected areas over the next decade. But the merger and acquisition teams at both companies are far less cautious, given the go ahead to pay handsomely for companies that often have little to do with providing telephone or internet service.

Light Reading reports AT&T’s debt climbed from $59 billion in 2010 to $126 billion at the end of 2017. Verizon’s debt increased from $45 billion to $114 billion. But those acquisitions have done little to attract new customers. Both companies’ operating cash flows have barely budged — $39 billion annually at AT&T (up from $35 billion) and Verizon’s actually declined from $33 billion in 2010 to $25 billion in 2017.

Mergers and Acquisitions (2011-2018)

AT&T

  • 2012: AT&T buys $1.93 billion worth of spectrum from Qualcomm.
  • 2013: AT&T buys Leap Wireless (Cricket) for $1.2 billion.
  • 2014: AT&T pays $49 billion for the DirectTV, issuing $17.5 billion in debt in April.
  • 2015: AT&T buys out assets from bankrupt Mexican wireless business of NII Holdings for around $1.875 billion.
  • 2018: AT&T pays $207 million to acquire FiberTower.
  • 2018: AT&T is cleared to merge with Time Warner in a deal valued at more than $84 billion.

Verizon

  • 2011: Verizon acquires Terremark for $1.4 billion.
  • 2014: Verizon buys out Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, valued at $130 billion, with a mixture of stock and debt.
  • 2015: Verizon buys AOL for a deal valued around $4.4 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon acquires Yahoo Internet assets for $4.5 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon buys spectrum holder Straight Path Communications for $3.1 billion roughly double rival AT&T’s offer, to build up 5G spectrum and footprint.

The more debt (and debt payments) that pile up at the two companies, the less money will be available to spend on fiber upgrades. In fact, there is evidence these companies are hoping to further cut costs in their core landline network operations. Some regulators have noticed. Verizon was forced to make a deal with New York regulators requiring the company to spend millions replacing failing copper-based facilities and upgrade them to fiber and remove or replace tens of thousands of deteriorated utility poles. Verizon faced similar action in Pennsylvania.

AT&T has spent millions lobbying the federal government to permanently decommission rural America’s landline network and replace it with a wireless alternative, while also working to replace the current regulated telephone network with deregulated alternatives like internet and Voice over IP phone service.

Wall Street analysts have occasionally questioned or at least expressed surprise over some of the phone companies’ odd acquisitions:

  • Verizon acquired Terremark to beef up its cloud-based and server-hosting businesses. But shortly after acquiring the company, Verizon began replacing top management, sometimes repeatedly, and ultimately divested itself of its data center portfolio, including Terremark, just five years later.
  • AT&T bought DirecTV to help it reduce wholesale TV programming expenses for its U-verse TV subscribers. But DirecTV has lost more than one million satellite TV customers since AT&T acquired it in 2014, despite new marketing efforts to convince would-be U-verse TV customers to choose DirecTV instead.
  • Verizon saw value in web brands that were major players more than 18 years ago but are mostly afterthoughts today. The company spent almost $9 billion to acquire Yahoo and AOL, and their low quality content portfolios, which rely heavily on clickbait headlines, advertiser-sponsored content, and articles designed to maximize mouse clicks to boost the number of ads you see.

“The telcos are trying to diversify into content when they should instead be focused on their core business — building networks and charging for value-added technology,” said Scott Raynovich, founder and principal analyst at Futuriom. “It’s clear they see content as part of the value-add but customers so far don’t seem to be reacting that way. It’s clear they are allergic to paying higher prices for bundled content.”

AT&T and Verizon’s customers are not clamoring for more content deals. When surveyed, most want better internet service at more affordable prices.

Breaking News: N.Y. Fines Charter $2 Million for Failure to Meet Broadband Targets

The New York State Public Service Commission today fined Charter/Spectrum $2 million after the company failed to meet its obligations to expand its cable network to more than ten thousand homes and businesses the company committed to serve in the time allotted. In addition, the PSC warned the company, which claimed in a response to the state’s “show cause” order that it was not obligated to meet the terms of its 2016 merger agreement, faces the threat of having its merger with Time Warner Cable revoked, which could end Spectrum’s ability to operate in New York State.

“As a condition of our approval of Charter’s merger two years ago, we required Charter to make significant investments in its network,” said Commission chair John B. Rhodes. “Our investigation shows that Charter failed to meet its obligations to expand the reach of its network to unserved and underserved customers at the required pace and that it failed to justify why it wasn’t able to meet its obligations. Furthermore, since the company has taken the unfortunate position of refusing to adhere to all conditions set forth in our initial decision two years ago, we now demand the company unconditionally accept all of the conditions as the Commission unambiguously required in 2016, or run the risk of more severe consequences.”

In its order regarding Charter’s failure to meet its buildout obligations, the Commission rejected 18,363 addresses — including 12,467 in New York City and 4,096 in the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, Albany, and Mt. Vernon — to which Charter claimed it expanded network as part of its required buildout requirement. The Commission found that these addresses were already passed by Charter or another company providing high speed broadband, or that Charter was separately required to pass the addresses pursuant to state regulations and/or franchise agreements.

As a result, Charter must revise its overall 145,000 addresses-buildout plan to remove the rejected addresses and file a revised buildout plan for going forward within 21 days. In its initial 2016 order approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, the Commission required that Charter extend its network to pass within its statewide service territory, an additional 145,000 unserved and underserved residential housing units and/or businesses within four years.

About a year later, it became evident that Charter had failed to meet its May 2017 target. To get the company back on track, the Commission approved a settlement under which Charter was required to pass 36,771 eligible premises by December 2017, and meet regular six-month milestones or else pay up to $1 million for each miss, and up to $1 million should the company fail to correct any miss within three months.

Rhodes

Earlier this year, Commission staff, audited Charter’s compliance filing of proposed passings to be counted toward its December 2017 target, and determined that 14,522 passings should be
disqualified, which meant that the company failed to meet its required target. In its May response to the Commission, Charter argued that not all of the Commission’s 2016 merger order applies to the company as part of its rationale for including ineligible addresses. Given the company’s continued intransigence, the Commission today ordered that the company unconditionally accept all of the conditions and requirements spelled out in its 2016 order or face subsequent Commission action.

With today’s decision, the Commission ordered Charter to pay $1 million in accordance with the settlement agreement for failing to satisfy the December 2017 target and failing to demonstrate that it missed the target due to circumstances beyond its control. The Commission similarly  found that Charter did not “cure” this miss by March 16, 2018, nor did it demonstrate that it had good cause for its failure to do so, requiring an additional $1 million payment to the state.

Control Freak: Frontier Goes All Out to Limit Minnesota Investigation

Frontier Communications spent more time working on ways to keep Minnesota customers from turning up at upcoming public hearings to discuss their poor service than actually resolving those customers’ service troubles.

Minnesota has a big problem with Frontier. The company has been the subject of an unprecedented number of customer complaints and negative comments — 439 in just a five-week period from Feb. 12 – March 19, 2018 about poor service, repair crews that don’t show up, woefully inadequate internet service, poor billing and customer service practices, and false advertising. As a result, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) launched an investigation into Frontier’s service performance in the state (Note: most links in this article will require a free account at the Minnesota Department of Commerce to read. Register here.), which is about the same time Frontier’s top executives in the state began a campaign of damage control focused primarily on keeping internet complaints out of the public record.

The complaints, summarized below by the Minnesota PUC, are familiar to many Frontier Communications customers around the country:

Some parties allege being without telephone service for about a week’s time on multiple occasions. Such instances resulted in customers being unable to access 911 or connect medical devices dependent on land telephone lines. Missed incoming calls, noise on phone lines and other phone quality complaints are not infrequent. Nearly all comments mention that they are being charged for service product(s) not being provided as promised, often with related billing and cancellation disputes as a consequence.

Nearly all parties complain that Frontier’s customer service representatives provide inconsistent information on available service in the customer’s area and its price. Many report routinely being sold higher level (more costly) service or hardware as a remedy for service problems that remain or return after the recommended solution is in place. Customers often note being told later that the upgraded service they were sold is not available at their location.

Many complaints concern home service visits that require subsequent visits to correct or augment earlier actions, often with charges but no resulting remedy. Often customers say they experience long delays in getting repairs scheduled, must take lengthy time from work to await for service representatives to arrive only to find problems cannot be remedied. Missed service appointments, mistaken disconnections, unrequested service additions, installation and wiring errors are common complaints.

Customers frequently report discovering they are allegedly on a contract with penalties for ending service early even if they had explicitly refused to accept long term contracts. Apparently such contracts automatically renew without customer notice upon payment of the first month of the new period. Customers indicate being warned of damaging credit reports in addition to accumulating penalties if they do not pay disputed bills. Billing disputes also include promised discounts not being provided, penalties accumulating on disputed amounts, and checks being sent but not being credited to accounts.

Based on decades of experience, the PUC staff knew trouble when they saw it, and found the complaints about Frontier credible and serious.

“The total number of comments and complaints, often with detailed documentation, appears to indicate that widespread problems with service quality, customer service and billing exist,” PUC staffers wrote. “Customers express the very highest levels of frustration over service quality and over their interactions with Frontier representatives. Customers express despair over their billing and lack of alternatives. Finally, they express outright ‘gratitude for the hope that someone might come to their aid.”

Customers hoping for rescue discovered Frontier’s legal team instead, on a mission to do everything possible to limit the scope of the state’s investigation and discourage public participation by suggesting customers with internet complaints would not be welcome at the hearings.

Frontier, joined by fellow independent phone company CenturyLink, immediately realized the implications of holding public hearings about the performance of their DSL service in Minnesota. Both companies likely receive an even larger number of service complaints than regulators do, and here is just a sampling:

‘If you don’t like our service in the countryside, move to town!’

Graham Adams: “We have had Frontier for a little over 2 years and have had nothing but problems. Internet is constantly out for days sometimes weeks at a time. I think it’s preposterous they can charge me $42 a month for 5 Mbps service that is inconsistent at best. Because we live outside city limits Frontier is the only internet service available.”

Christopher Krolak:  “I have been a Frontier Communications customer for about 4.5 years. I live in an area where there isn’t a lot of competition for high speed internet. I pay $30 per month for “up to 6 Mbps” service but real world speeds are best case 2 Mbps and fall to 0.3 Mbps during peak times. When I’ve called about the large discrepancy between advertised speed and actual speed, Frontier has responded that the area I live in is only provisioned for about 2 Mbps speed and an infrastructure upgrade is required. Frontier is unwilling to give any timeline forecast for when such upgrade will be made.”

Sylvia Svihel: “We have been a customer of Frontier’s for 41 years as it has been the only land line in our area. Our phone, internet and Dish service are tied into the same package. The prices keep going up. We did upgrade our service for a faster speed but we see zero improvement on the speed…just an even higher bill. I have lost track of how many times we have contacted Frontier on lost service. They usually just say it’s the modem and to reboot it and everything will be OK. I reboot the modem, sometimes multiple times a day.”

Jay Johnson: “I have been a Frontier customer for internet for a long time. The service I pay for is “up to 6 Mbps” but I’d be lucky to get 1.2 Mbps. They have a monopoly in this part of Mille Lacs County. There are really no other options other than satellite or cellular and those are not really any better speed and certainly not price.”

Roger Wikstrom: “We have had Frontier service for 32 years. Beginning about 20 years ago we added internet service, which has always been unreliable. […]We complained many times and had dozens of service calls over the years. At one point, the technician told us we were out in the country, the brass at Frontier did not really care about our service, and that if we wanted good service from Frontier, we should move to town.”

Based on a growing record of complaints, the PUC sought to hold public hearings to gather more information from consumers and to better understand the problems being experienced by Frontier customers. Almost immediately, Frontier began to claim the complaints were few and far between, and most of the complaints seen on the record pertain to the company’s DSL internet service, which Frontier claims is not subject to oversight by the PUC and cannot be a subject on the agenda of the public hearings.

Frontier’s Lawyers: It would confuse customers and give them false hope if they believed the Commission can force Frontier to improve DSL service.

Frontier’s attorneys lecture the Minnesota Department of Commerce

Frontier’s attorneys have repeatedly objected to any investigation or hearings that cover anything beyond the performance of Frontier’s landline telephone service. Frontier was joined by CenturyLink, which also argues Minnesota no longer has any jurisdiction over broadband issues, noting a state court recently ruled telecommunications services are subject to state regulation and oversight, while “information services” like internet access are not.

Frontier was particularly irritated that the hearings could stray into an open mic session filled with consumers upset about Frontier’s DSL service. Unless customers were warned in advance the public meetings were not to include discussions about internet service, it “would create false expectations and confusion for customers.” In fact, if regulators permitted this, Frontier claims it would “violate federal law.”

“Holding public hearings directed to internet access service complaints would not be constructive because the Commission would be precluded from taking action concerning internet service rates or service quality using any information it may collect during the public hearings,” Frontier added.

Here is where the Republican-dominated FCC comes to the aid of Frontier and CenturyLink. At the insistence of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, stripping away state oversight of poorly performing telecom companies was a key industry benefit gained with the implementation of Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom Order,” implemented on Jan. 8, 2018. That FCC Order swept away former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s favored classification of broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which is subject to oversight, and instead put it firmly back in unregulated territory as an “information service.” That proved helpful to CenturyLink’s argument:

In making its decision the FCC broadly preempted state regulation and decided that “regulation of broadband Internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork that includes separate state and local requirements.” The FCC expressly preempted any ‘public utility-type’ regulations, . . . akin to those found in Title II of the Act and its implementing rules . . .”

Frontier’s lawyers made so much noise about the prospect of internet complaints being heard at public hearings, the Commission elected to allow Frontier to draft the public hearing notices that would be inserted into customer bills and published in newspapers around the state. The Commission also allowed Frontier to clarify the limits of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service — a decision it would soon regret.

Minnesota is unusual because it is served by dozens of smaller, typically independent telephone companies, which include Frontier and its subsidiary Citizens Telecommunications of Minnesota.

Give Frontier an inch, and they take a mile, according to some company critics who told Stop the Cap! were astonished on April 30th when Frontier shared its draft notice with the public. The Minnesota attorney general’s office politely characterized Frontier’s notice as a “very narrow reading of the Commission’s jurisdiction over internet service.”

Here it is, as originally proposed by Frontier in April:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet services or the speed or quality of access or connections to the Internet or the communications services, such as Voice Over IP, that are provided using only the Internet.

The attorney general’s office objected to Frontier’s characterization of VoIP phone service as completely unregulated. A subsequent proposed revision by Frontier was not welcomed by the attorney general’s office either:

The jurisdiction of the MPUC includes telephone services, but does not include Internet access services or the rates, speed, quality, or availability of Internet services.

After motions to reconsider, the Commission ultimately reversed its earlier decision allowing Frontier to write its own text:

While the Commission does not want to mislead the public into believing the Commission has jurisdiction over matters that are solely within the province of federal entities, neither does the Commission want to erroneously disavow any aspect of the jurisdiction it does have over the goods and services that Frontier provides to its Minnesota customers.

Given the tension between these two objectives—and the fact that this dispute is arising in the context of drafting the language of a public notice—the Commission will resolve this matter by simply eliminating the requirement that the notice address the topic of the Commission’s jurisdiction over aspects of internet services.

Frontier DSL in Watertown: “47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook.”

While Frontier argues about jurisdiction issues, customers like Dr. Kathleen McCann — a dentist serving rural Watertown Township in Carver County, share their stories about how inadequate internet access directly harms local communities, and in her case, her patients.

Dr. McCann

“Frontier Communications is my only option for internet,” McCann told regulators. “My internet service is worse than dial-up. I am charged for ‘DSL High Speed Broadband’ on my monthly bill, but my download speeds are only averaging 2 Mbps and the upload speeds average 0.28 Mbps. As a dentist, I am not able to email dental X-rays. It took me 47 minutes to upload one small photo to Facebook recently.”

McCann added what is even worse than her DSL speed is Frontier’s service. She claims there are “frequent drops” every day, and a technician from Frontier measured an average of 20 small service outages a day. One day her service dropped 400 times. Outages can last days.

“The most recent Frontier internet outage began March 3 and as of March 7, there are at least 27 homes in my neighborhood still without internet service,” McCann added. “This is unacceptable, especially since many of these 27 Frontier customers are running their businesses entirely from home. Calls to Frontier, when finally answered after sometimes 40 minutes on hold, are ineffective.”

Public meetings to discuss Frontier service are scheduled in these areas of Minnesota (exact locations to be determined):

  • Ely: September 4, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • McGregor: September 5, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Wyoming: September 12, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Slayton: September 25, 2018, at 6:00 p.m.
  • Lakeville: September 26, 2018, at 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

Is Dish Networks Really Preparing to Finally Build Its Wireless Network?

Among the major wireless companies with spectrum holdings worth billions, few would suspect that the fifth largest (behind Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile) is the satellite television company Dish Networks.

After spending nearly $20 billion over the last ten years acquiring nearly 95 MHz of extremely valuable low and mid-band spectrum in markets across the United States, Dish is the largest wireless company that isn’t actually providing wireless service. Critics have questioned whether Dish co-founder Charlie Ergen was ever really interested in getting into the wireless business when he could make an even bigger killing warehousing spectrum until it grows in value and can be profitably sold to someone else. One Wall Street analyst thinks there is a strong case for exactly that. Cowen and Company estimates Dish’s holdings are now worth $30.2 billion — a $10 billion profit possible from keeping spectrum off the market until a buyer is willing to make an offer Dish cannot refuse.

Unfortunately for Ergen, spectrum is public property and ultimate ownership rights can never be sold or transferred. Instead, the FCC licenses companies to use the public airwaves, and has provisions to take them back if a company does not put that spectrum to good use. For Dish Networks, the first important deadline is March 2020, by which time the FCC expects Dish to achieve at least 70% market coverage of its 700 MHz “E-Block” and 2000-2020/2180-2200 MHz AWS-4 licenses.

Dish’s “E-Block” spectrum was formerly known as UHF channel 56. Dish has already begun testing the next-generation TV standard ATSC 3.0 on its E-Block spectrum in Dallas, as part of a joint venture with TV station owners Sinclair, Nexstar, and Univision. Dish proposed to use this spectrum, which covers 95% of the United States, as a potential tool for broadcasters. Among the services Dish could offer are broadcast data applications made possible with the ATSC 3.0 standard.

Because time and money is on the line, Dish needs to either build its network quickly or sell/lease its spectrum to other companies before facing possible spectrum forfeiture in less than two years. Analysts say one of the cheapest and easiest ways of placating the FCC is to deploy a modest, narrowband wireless network designed for machine-to-machine communications. These networks rely on short bursts of data to communicate information. Possible applications include exchanging irrigation and crop data collected from wireless sensors and various remote weather and climate measurement tools.

Coincidentally, that is exactly the kind of network Ergen initially envisions, largely operating on the sparsely used AWS bands. Officially called “NB-IoT” in wireless industry parlance, the ‘narrowband Internet of Things’ network would be the first chapter of Dish’s wireless story. It’s a network done on the cheap — constructed with a relatively low investment of $500 million to $1 billion through 2020, adequate enough to keep the FCC off Dish’s back.

Ergen reports the radios have been ordered and in a sign of serious intent, Dish has now signed master lease agreements with cell tower companies that will allow Dish to place its transmission equipment on tens of thousands of cell towers around the country. The company has also hired experts in tower permitting and network design and planning. Those contracts are an important indicator for some skeptics on Wall Street who believed Ergen would not show seriousness of intent until he signed paid, binding commitments to begin network buildout.

Ergen would disagree that Dish has been foot-dragging its wireless network deployment, despite a decade of accumulating wireless spectrum that has gone unused.

“It’s all about timing; too early you are roadkill, if you get it just right you have a chance,” Ergen said. “We missed the 4G shift because of the regulatory reasons. The next big paradigm shift is 5G.”

Ergen

Unfortunately for Ergen, he will be late to that paradigm shift, admitting his dream of a national 5G network isn’t possible right now.

“We’re […] going to spend at least $10 billion or more on a 5G network,” Ergen said, while also admitting, “we don’t have that kind of capital on our balance sheet today.”

Ergen promised that sometime in the future, Dish will begin a “second phase” that will “build a complete 5G network.” But Ergen’s vision of 5G is somewhat different from Verizon and AT&T, which are focused on the consumer and business voice and data markets. Ergen envisions a robust 5G network designed to support IoT applications like smart cities, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles, and does not seem interested launching a fifth national cell provider.

Ergen quit in December 2017 as CEO of Dish’s aging satellite TV business to refocus on Dish’s mobile future, and to recast the venture as a glorified startup, much like his early days in the home satellite television business where he got into the business manufacturing 10-foot C-band satellite dishes for consumers and then sold the programming to watch on those dishes. From money earned in that business, Ergen launched Dish Networks, which relies on today’s familiar small satellite dishes and competes with DirecTV.

Ergen’s satellite TV venture only had to compete with one other satellite provider. His wireless network will have to compete with at least four established national wireless companies, plus emerging competition from the cable industry and regional cellular providers. Ergen tried to turn that obvious business challenge into an opportunity:

“We have two disadvantages; We don’t [have many] customers and we are not as knowledgeable as other people in the business, but we don’t have the legacy of 2G, 3G, 4G networks,” Ergen said. “We have a clean sheet of paper with 5G. It reminds me of 1990 when we decided to reinvent ourselves from the big dish business to small dish. It took five years to design and build that system with not one penny of revenue, and we obsoleted the business we were in. When we got into satellites, we didn’t know anything about it, but neither did anyone else. It is the same with 5G/IoT. We are not the world’s experts, but neither is anyone else.”

What Ergen lacks in experience he makes up for in enthusiasm, laying out plans for Dish’s wireless future. By the time he activates 5G service, Dish expects to use its combined 95 MHz of spectrum in the 600 MHz and 2 GHz range for that network. That will take until at least July 2020, because many of the 600 MHz frequencies he needs are still occupied by UHF television stations that are in the process of migrating to a more compact UHF band.

Dish has spectrum holdings that reach almost every corner in the U.S.

Ergen may also consider acquiring additional millimeter wave spectrum if he deploys small cell technology. He has even decided to keep small cell and larger traditional “macrocells” found on traditional cell towers on different frequencies, claiming sharing the frequencies would create interference issues.

Ergen also hopes to convince the FCC to repurpose little-known Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service (MVDDS) spectrum located between 12.2-12.7 GHz for 5G wireless applications. That solid block of 500 MHz of spectrum could be an important asset to power small cell 5G networks, because it can support faster speeds than the typical smaller blocks of frequencies most companies control. MVDDS also lacks a significant constituency to protect it, having been woefully underutilized in the United States. Only tiny Cibola Wireless, an ISP in Albuquerque, N.M., licenses MVDDS technology for its wireless internet service, selling Albuquerque residents up to 50 Mbps speed for $79.99 a month. Users claim the service does not suffer the latency problems of traditional satellite internet access, but can still slow down if too many users are online at the same time.

Back in 2010, MVDDS technology was seen as a potential competitor to companies like Dish and DirecTV, as well as satellite internet providers which share similar spectrum. Like satellite internet, MVDDS can transmit and receive data over a small dish. But instead of pointing it to a satellite 44,000 miles away, MVDDS systems target a ground-based transmission tower much closer nearby. The technology never attracted much attention, and will now likely be displaced by 5G in the United States, although it has done modestly better abroad, serving a limited customer base in the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, France, Vietnam, Greenland and Serbia.

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