People shaking hands

Dish Plans To Acquire Gen Mobile

Today, Dish’s Boost Mobile announced its plan to acquire the MVNO Gen Mobile. While the deal hasn’t officially closed and will need regulatory approval, I don’t expect any major hurdles will get in the way.

Gen Mobile focuses on budget-friendly plans, and Dish may be hoping to use the brand to market services to customers that are eligible for subsidies through the government’s Lifeline program.

Dish has now acquired four carriers in a relatively short span of time:

  • Boost Mobile
  • Ting
  • Republic Wireless
  • Gen Mobile

While I don’t know how large Gen Mobile’s subscriber base is, I expect Gen Mobile has substantially fewer customers than any of the other carriers Dish has acquired.

Rocket ship

Dish Plans To Launch Postpaid Cellular in 2022

Earlier this week, Mike Dano at Light Reading shared a scoop about Dish’s plans. Dano’s article has some good insights and a handful of interesting comments from Stephen Stokols, CEO of Dish’s Boost Mobile. While Dish technically already runs a postpaid service after its acquisition of Ting, Dish plans to launch a homegrown postpaid service in 2022.

It sounds like Dish hopes to leverage both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks rather than moving to treat AT&T as an exclusive partner for offloading:

Stokols said the company doesn’t necessarily want to replace T-Mobile with AT&T.

‘The intent is to straddle the two. The intent is to have two networks. That’s not abnormal for an MVNO of our size,’ Stokols said. MVNOs like Red Pocket Mobile and TracFone manage a number of MVNO agreements that allow them to sign up customers to whichever wireless network operator is offering the best wholesale rates. Stokols said Dish would like to do the same.

A somewhat contradictory comment from Stokols appears later in Dano’s article. I’m inclined to dismiss it as posturing:

He [Stokols] said Dish is now reconsidering using T-Mobile’s network for its mobile services. ‘It’s hard to stay on a network that literally knows your wholesale cost and comes in with retail prices below it’.

Stokols characterized some of T-Mobile’s recent behavior as anticompetitive:

Stokols said T-Mobile’s new $25-per-month prepaid promotion highlights T-Mobile’s ‘anticompetitive tone’ and ‘aggressive, combative attitude’ toward Dish. He also said T-Mobile’s new offer comes in just below what T-Mobile charges Dish for wholesale access to the T-Mobile network.

I’m not sure whether “anticompetitive” or “hypercompetitive” is a better description of T-Mobile’s behavior.

Hands shaking

Dish And AT&T Announce Network Services Agreement

Today, AT&T and Dish announced that they are entering into a Network Services Agreement (NSA).1 Here’s the key bit from Dish’s press release:

[DISH announced a] Network Services Agreement (NSA) with AT&T, making AT&T the primary network services partner for DISH MVNO customers. Through this agreement, DISH will provide current and future customers of its retail wireless brands, including Boost Mobile, Ting Mobile and Republic Wireless, access to best-in-class coverage and connectivity on AT&T’s wireless network, in addition to the new DISH 5G network.

SEC Filing Insights

An SEC filing provides more insights than Dish’s press release. The deal between AT&T and Dish involves a minimum payment of five billion dollars over ten years.

DISH has agreed to pay AT&T at least $5 billion over the course of the ten-year term of the NSA, subject to certain terms and conditions.

People are already suggesting that Dish got a bargain by striking this deal for only five billion. They may be misunderstanding the arrangement. I expect the amount Dish pays to AT&T will depend on how heavily Dish relies on AT&T’s network. While five billion dollars is a minimum Dish, I think it’s likely Dish will end up paying more.2

Network Access

Dish has committed to activating a certain portion of its subscribers on AT&T’s network, but the SEC filing suggests Dish is permitted to activate some subscribers on other networks:

Under the NSA, AT&T becomes the primary network services provider for DISH, as DISH has committed to activate on AT&T’s network at least a minimum percentage of certain of its MVNO subscribers in the U.S. who receive services through a third-party network and to cause no less than a specified percentage of certain of its domestic roaming data usage for DISH’s MNO subscribers to be on AT&T.

Roaming

It looks like most of AT&T’s roaming agreements may be extended to Dish (emphasis mine):

AT&T will provide DISH with…services in all U.S. geographic areas…where AT&T or any AT&T affiliate has the right to use another wireless service provider’s network and is authorized to extend such right to DISH.
I’m unsure how often AT&T is prohibited from extending its roaming agreements to other parties. Further, it’s possible Dish won’t take advantage of some of AT&T’s roaming arrangements due to cost considerations.3

Prioritization

The SEC filing briefly touches on prioritization:

Under the NSA, AT&T will provide DISH postpaid and prepaid customers with similar quality of service as compared to certain AT&T postpaid and prepaid customers.
While the phrasing is vague, I expect it indicates Dish subscribers will have a QCI of 8 for regular data use on AT&T’s LTE network. That’s the same QCI for regular data received by the large majority of consumers on AT&T-branded plans.

Spectrum Use

Dish has extensive spectrum holdings that AT&T may take advantage of:

The NSA also provides an avenue for AT&T to deploy portions of DISH’s spectrum to support DISH customers on the AT&T network, by allowing AT&T the right, but not the obligation, to request to use portions of DISH’s spectrum.

Other Brands

The filing makes it clear that access to AT&T’s network is available for both existing and future brands under Dish (emphasis mine):

[The agreement provides] customers of Boost, Ting and Republic Wireless and all future DISH brands coverage on AT&T’s network.

Speculation

My hunch is that this deal is good news for both AT&T and Dish. For a while, I’ve heard people express skepticism about whether Dish actually intends to build its own network. I’m finding the skepticism less plausible as time goes on. With the backing of AT&T, Dish can focus on building out a 5G network in dense areas while offloading to AT&T for more extensive coverage.

The new agreement is probably bad news for T-Mobile. The company’s stock closed today a bit over 3% down from its opening price.4

Dish’s Project Genesis

Dish recently launched a mysterious website, 5gMobileGenesis.com, where visitors can sign up for something called Project Genesis. Few details are available about the project. Here’s a snapshot from the homepage:

Project Genesis homepage snapshot

In an article on Light Reading, Mike Dano suggests “Project Genesis” may be a brand name for Dish’s 5G service. Dano suggests the talk of “democratizing wireless” could be intended to give Dish’s 5G a made-in-America vibe:

The site’s patriotic phrasing doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Dish executives have long touted the company’s desire to primarily use American vendors for 5G (though both of Dish’s radio vendors are based in Asia).

Peter Adderton also suspects Project Genesis is about branding:

I’m not so sure Dano and Adderton have the full story. Here’s the message I saw after filling out a form on the Project Genesis website:

Message congratulating me for being a founding member of Project Genesis

Dish might be using phrases like “original founder” and “democratizing wireless” in an empty matter. But there could be more substance. Helium, which I’m sure I’ll write more about soon, is trying to create a decentralized 5G network. Could Dish be doing something similar?

Tim McDonald, a keen observer of the telecom industry, considered the possibility:

Handshake

Dish Plans To Acquire Republic Wireless

Today, Dish announced plans to acquire Republic Wireless and its roughly 200,000 customers. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

According to Dish’s press release, Republic Wireless customers won’t see any immediate changes or need to take any immediate action. I’m unsure what the outlook is for the future. Dish has already been explaining substantial churn in Boost subscribers it acquired as “shedding unprofitable customers.” We may see something similar happen as Dish takes control of the Republic Wireless customer base. Dish may also run into some troubles handling some Republic Wireless customers if T-Mobile sticks with its plan to shut down the Sprint CDMA network near the beginning of next year.

Ting Launches New Plans & Pricing

Ting’s subscribers and some of the company’s other assets were acquired by DISH earlier this year. At the time of the acquisition, Elliot Noss, the CEO of Ting’s parent company, wrote:

Soon, DISH will be offering much improved pricing.

Today, Ting is delivering on that promise. The carrier just launched four new plans. While almost all Ting subscribers will get better prices through the new plans, an email I received stated, “Existing customers are also welcome to keep their current Ting Mobile rates should they wish to.”

Ting’s new Flex option is similar to Ting’s old pay-for-what-you-use model. A base price of $10 per month provides service with unlimited minutes and texts. Subscribers on the Flex plan then pay $5 per gigabyte of data used (half of Ting’s old $10 per gigabyte rate).

Ting’s new plans include three other options that may make sense for heavier data users. Each option includes unlimited minutes and texts:

Set 5 GB

  • $25 per month
  • 5GB of full-speed data each month
  • No restrictions on mobile hotspot data

Unlimited

  • $45 per month
  • 22GB of full-speed data each month
  • Up to 12GB of data per month can be used for mobile hotspots

Unlimited Pro

  • $60 per month
  • 35GB of full-speed data each month
  • Up to 30GB of data per month can be used for mobile hotspots

Subscribers on these plans that run out of full-speed data can use additional data at sluggish, 2G speeds at no extra charge.

“Unlimited” done right

I’m normally critical of carriers offering “unlimited” plans that cap full-speed data. While the word “unlimited” in the names of some of Ting’s plans could be misleading, Ting is transparent about data caps. The screenshot below comes from Ting’s Plans page:

Ting "Unlimited" plan characteristics screenshot

Ting’s transparency stands in contrast to the usual strategy of burring limitations in fine print.

Ting post-acquisition

I’m not sure how much confidence I have in Ting following the acquisition by DISH. While Ting currently offers a great customer experience and some of the best support agents in the industry, I’m less optimistic about the long term.

I’m guessing Ting’s subscriber base will eventually be folded into DISH or another carrier owned by DISH. In all likelihood, the transition will lead to deterioration in the quality of subscribers’ experiences.1

Consumer Cellular Being Sold To A PE Firm

The private equity firm GTCR is planning to purchase a majority stake in the carrier Consumer Cellular for 2.3 billion dollars. With roughly four million subscribers, the purchase price comes out to over $500 per subscriber. The deal is expected to close in late 2020.

I don’t know what source Mike Dano of Light Reading is relying on, but he seems to have insights into the details of the sale:

After a bidding war that involved Dish Network, Altice USA, Ultra Mobile, a group led by Boost Mobile founder Peter Adderton and others, Chicago private equity company GTCR has purchased Consumer Cellular for around $2.3 billion.

A year of acquisitions

The wireless market in the U.S. has seen a lot of movement lately. Sprint, Ting, Boost, Consumer Cellular, and a whole bunch of brands owned by TracFone have either been acquired in the last year or are in the process of being acquired.

The latest deal with Consumer Cellular presents interesting contrasts with the acquisition of Boost Mobile. DISH paid about 1.4 billion for roughly 9 million Boost subscribers. The cost per subscriber in the Boost acquisition came out to about $150, roughly one-fourth of the cost per subscriber in the Consumer Cellular acquisition. Consumer Cellular’s lower churn rate may explain some of the discrepancy.

DISH, MATRIXX, and Dynamic Pricing

DISH and MATRIXX Software just came out with a press release titled: “DISH selects MATRIXX Software for dynamic pricing and monetization of its 5G network”.

I’m a huge advocate of variable-rate pricing. Varying data charges based on how congested cellular networks are would bring huge efficiency gains.

While the press release seems promising, it’s full of corporate jargon and light on substance. Here’s the key bit from the press release:

MATRIXX’s API-first architecture is proven to deploy quickly and cost-effectively. Combined with DISH’s AI strategy, it will determine network availability and utilization, dynamically changing prices throughout the day. MATRIXX’s cloud native, continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipeline then automates pricing updates.

Rumors About A Potential Consumer Cellular Sale

Earlier this week, Mike Dano of Light Reading reported on rumors about Consumer Cellular:

Consumer Cellular – one of the nation’s largest MVNOs – is in discussions with other companies for a potential sale, according to two people familiar with the issue. The discussions appear to be in the early stages, and may not result in a transaction.

An acquisition of Consumer Cellular’s roughly four million subscribers would be big news. The new rumors combined with Ting’s sale of its subscriber base earlier this month raise the possibility that MVNOs are feeling squeezed.

As Sprint folds into T-Mobile, network operators may be increasing what they charge MVNOs for network access. MVNOs may also worry their offerings will become less competitive as DISH enters the marketplace. The CEO of Ting’s parent company, Elliot Noss, suggested something along those lines:

For many quarters now, I have discussed the outlook for Ting Mobile within the context of how DISH enters the market and what that would mean for the industry competitively. I absolutely believe that they will be very aggressive with pricing, which has two implications for our announcement. First, it would make remaining as a retail MVNO that much more difficult. Second, it will make their entry into the market that much more successful. The net result is that DISH is well positioned to disrupt the US mobile market.

Reflecting On Ting

Ting had a phenomenal reputation for its customer support. Given that lackluster support is par for the course in the cellular industry, it’s particularly impressive that Ting managed to buck the trend while offering a low-cost service.

Earlier this month, DISH acquired Ting’s subscriber base. DISH’s customer support has a lousy reputation. I’m worried that a lot of what made Ting special will disappear as subscribers gradually become integrated with DISH.

While I’m sad to see Ting changing, the recent moves were reasonable for Tucows, Ting’s parent company. Here’s a screenshot I took showing the change in Tucows’ share price in the handful of hours after the news about the acquisition of Ting’s subscribers went public:

Tucows' stock rose over 16%

Changes for Ting subscribers

I’ve found Elliot Noss, Tucows’ CEO, and many of Ting’s employees to be unusually straight talkers. While understandable, it was a bit disappointing that some of the usual candor was missing in statements and discussions related to the acquisition. Still, light was shed on important factors that could affect Ting subscribers going forward. The excerpts below come from Elliot Noss’ Reddit post.

Pricing

For those following, DISH is now becoming a fourth competitor in mobile with T-Mobile taking over Sprint. We are going to help them grow their business and try and make tens of millions of customers as happy and satisfied as you all have been. And for you, soon, DISH will be offering much improved pricing.

I have no reason to doubt that prices will come down. Ting did a great job pushing forward pay-for-what-you-use pricing, but Ting’s data charges haven’t been competitive with the rest of the market for several years. While I expect data prices will come down, I don’t know if DISH will let Ting’s customer base stick with pay-for-what-you-use pricing indefinitely.

Customer support

Our customer service people will still be the ones answering your calls, etc. for the first while and before they are not we intend to help DISH be able to provide service that has you just as happy.

In my view, Ting managed to offer far better support than any of the major carriers offer their own, postpaid customers. I seriously doubt DISH’s customer support will offer the same quality that Ting’s support agents offer.