DISH AWS-4 Press Release: What does it mean?

So yesterday, I get this press release. It’s entitled, “DISH Designates AWS-4 as Downlink; 3GPP Working Group Completes Band 70 to Integrate DISH Spectrum with AWS-3 Spectrum.” Maybe you read it elsewhere. I’m thinking, that’s not exactly the most interesting thing ever, is it? And I sit on it. I thought about it overnight. Then I woke up and decided to write this article which will, I hope, try to explain why you should care about this particular, highly technical, thing.

It’s no secret that DISH wants to get into the “terrestrial wireless internet” business somehow. “Terrestrial Wireless Internet” isn’t exactly a fabulous name, but what we’re talking about is cellular data. Not necessarily phones, DISH doesn’t necessarily want to be a cell phone company (although, you never know.) But definitely the ability to stream video over the air. They tried to buy Sprint a few years ago, which didn’t work. The good news here is that their failed attempt seems to have taught them what they should and shouldn’t try to buy.

DISH already owned a lot of licenses around the 2GHz broadcast range. What they’re saying here is that they’re consolidating a lot of that together into one big chunk, 80MHz wide, which they claim will support 23 million wireless connections nationwide. (I’ll be honest, I have no idea how they came up with that number.) They’re telling us that they want to use a lot of that for “downlink” in other words, streaming stuff to your phone.

They’ve been working hard to get these frequencies properly classified so that they can do it right, as opposed to the way Sprint does it with a lot of different frequencies spread out all over the place. This means that it should be fairly inexpensive to build devices to use this broadcast real estate, and it’s also possible that existing cellular boosters could work to improve signal here, unlike Sprint’s weird collection of spectrum assets, which are largely invisible to signal boosters.

The real takeaway: It’s just what you think. This all points to DISH launching a standalone service for streaming video anywhere, wirelessly. They’re already doing great stuff with SlingTV which is turning into a major cord-cutting force, but SlingTV relies on your wireless data plan or internet provider, and that means potential data caps and data charges. What they’re shooting for here is something they control, something that they can operate and there would be nothing stopping people from streaming to their heart’s content.

There are a few ways this could be accomplished. DISH could convince a cell carrier to build devices that used DISH’s frequencies. It’s hard to imagine Verizon or AT&T cooperating here, as they both operate their own TV services, but T-Mobile would probably be game. T-Mobile’s corporate culture isn’t that different from DISH’s anyway. Who knows, maybe they could even partner with Sprint but that’s unlikely as Sprint phones already have way too many power-sucking radio chips in them.

Another option would be to build a standalone device, a media player just for DISH content. This is probablya non-starter because for one thing it’s not 2003 anymore. My point is that people don’t want to carry multiple devices, they want one for all. Now DISH could do something like their newly released HopperGO product. They could have a pocket-sized hotspot that streamed to your local device over its own Wi-Fi connection. That would at least keep them in the mobile game.

It’s also possible, and I consider it quite likely, that DISH could create a product that connected to your home router via wired or wireless connection and traffic from their apps would just go through that and not through your normal internet connection. This would let phones, Smart TVs, PCs and streaming devices all connect easily and avoid data caps. Such a device could be permanently installed and even use an outdoor antenna for maximum performance. This would really be the next step in DISH’s evolution and would let them transition people from satellite-delivered content to streaming content. I could even imagine a satellite dish with a wireless antenna built in, as a transition.

The real takeaway here is, DISH is doing it right. They’re working with the right people, they’re working within the system and they’re preparing to build a wireless network that really makes sense so that when they’re ready to launch that killer streaming service, all the infrastructure they need is there.

And that’s the bottom line… that’s why you should care about that boring old press release. Took me a while to figure it out too.