As soon as I got in my car, my Galaxy S22 connected to Dish’s brand new 5G network lost connection to the internet. I was a little surprised but not shocked — the service, Project Genesis, is only a few months old and only covers around a quarter of the US population. The service has always been a bit spotty on my side of Spokane, Washington, growing stronger and more reliable as you get closer to downtown. But as I drove laps around Riverside park, which was once my go-to testing area for the service, I grew increasingly confused — my phone no longer seemed to be connecting to any Dish towers.
Project Genesis is Dish’s way to test the 5G network that it’s legally required to build out, thanks to the T-Mobile / Sprint merger. Earlier this year, on an earnings call, Dish’s COO classified it as “a project to bring on early users” that would be “short-lived as we transition to full commercial operations with our brands.” While it may stick around in some capacity, he said it’s “not our sort of full-scale launch of a brand and offers to compete with the large incumbents.” The big launch will likely come with Boost Infinite, another upcoming service from Dish, but Project Genesis is giving us a preview of what that might look like.
Dish launched Genesis in 120 cities in June, just managing to beat the buzzer on its legal requirement to cover 20 percent of the United States. It’s fair to say that it had a bumpy start — actually ordering a phone to use the service was an ordeal, and coverage in some areas was hard to find. In Spokane, where I live, it covered at least a chunk of the city but wasn’t necessarily the most reliable thing ever.
But that was a few months ago! Before the public launch, the service had really only been in beta in a single city, Las Vegas. Now, Dish has had three months to settle in, build out the service, and fix any glaring issues. And so far… well, it still clearly has some work to do.
“None of this is easy,” Jeremy McCarty, Dish’s vice president and general manager of retail wireless, tells The Verge. “But we feel pretty good about the plan that we have.”
We spent some more time testing Dish’s network and talking to the company about what the plan is to turn its network into a major competitor.
Let’s start by justifying that headline and going over the “features” that feel just plain incomplete or missing. Project Genesis still lacks bring-your-own-device support (at checkout, you can choose between a Samsung Galaxy S22 and a Netgear hotspot), nor does it allow you to have multiple lines on an account. The former is somewhat understandable. “Because we are designing a new network that has just not been done before, the chipset that’s required to support our network only exists in so many phones today,” McCarty says. As more devices that support its network get made, the company will offer them, he said.
Perhaps the biggest missing piece for Project Genesis is any sort of account management system. Because of some launch-day issues that have since been resolved, I had to sign up with a service address that isn’t actually my home address. To change it, I had to contact support because there’s currently no web portal or screen in the app that lets you see or change those details.
That’s also true for things like billing info. The autopay confirmation emails I get from Dish every month say that if I want to change my payment method, I have to call support. The email also doesn’t have any info on how to check your billing history; I did ask the support person I talked to, and they told me there wasn’t a way to check that at this time and that I should keep an eye on my email for updates.
That wouldn’t be great under any circumstances, but it’s especially bad because I’m pretty sure the billing emails I’ve been getting are wrong. I’ve received three emails telling me that three separate $31.38 payments were about to be processed, but I couldn’t find any record of actually being billed. (I had to check a few accounts because, again, I couldn’t find any way to see which payment method I’m using.) I don’t believe that’s a bug because when I became a Dish Influencer, I received three months of free service alongside my NFT. I’m still within that window, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t have actually gotten any charges, but I still have three emails saying that I did.
To be frank, the whole situation seems a little ridiculous. There’s a Project Genesis app with a points system and leaderboard for giving feedback on the network, but no online way to change what credit card I pay for the service with. I don’t begrudge the app for existing; I like that there’s a way to report dead spots or network issues. But should it really have been a priority over having what feels like table stakes for any sort of service?
Dish has also been struggling to launch its own voice network, which uses a technology called VoNR (read: like voice over LTE but for 5G). Obviously, you can still make phone calls on Project Genesis, but in most cases, you’ll be using a partner network to do so. “Candidly, it’s been one of the hardest things to get done,” McCarty said about the VoNR rollout. “It’s a hard thing to get right. But as we’re optimizing and getting it right, we’re sort of rolling it out in other places.”
Okay, but what about the service? You know, the thing that Dish is really testing and that you use on a daily basis. Has Dish’s “cloud-native Smart 5G™ network,” which is built and managed using open-source radios and software rather than the proprietary equipment traditional networks use, gotten any better?
The answer, at least in Spokane, is… kind of? Since my article in July, the CellMapper app has spotted a new tower even further east of downtown, providing coverage to parts of the valley where I’d previously been stuck on AT&T, which Dish uses as a fallback when you’re in an area its homegrown network doesn’t cover. There are also a few new towers in Northtown. And during my latest downtown test, my phone eventually connected to Dish’s network, though it was immediately apparent why it was reluctant to do so. Running a few speed tests, I got results that’d be pretty poor for 4G, much less 5G, when I was only about a mile away from a tower, according to CellMapper’s data.
Other parts of downtown and the city fared much better, though, and I consistently saw speeds that were faster than what I had last time. There were even a few times when it beat out my iPhone with Verizon’s legacy Visible plan (though it’s not exactly jaw-dropping that it managed to outpace deprioritized data in a busy area). Overall, it did about as well as my Visible phone on a mediocre day and got handily beat by the few speed tests I ran on AT&T in roughly the same areas — it wasn’t particularly hard to get the phone to drop off Dish’s network, even if I only drove a block or two.
I’m not exactly thrilled with the lack of consistency, though. Other carriers absolutely have dead zones, sure, but usually, my daily carry phone doesn’t fluctuate between unusably slow and decently fast as I drive around (of course, during this testing round, I did manage to find an area where my normal plan also pulled single-digit download speeds; I promise that’s very unusual).
It’s not like Dish is unaware of its speed problems. When I asked McCarty what users complained about the most, he said: “one of the places that we’ve gotten feedback is wanting it to be faster, more reliable.”
Dish has a few strategies to make that happen: deploying more equipment, using more of its own spectrum, and continuing to rely on its partners’ networks. The first one is obvious; the more towers it has, the more bandwidth and coverage. Spectrum is a bit trickier; Dish has access to several different cellular “bands,” or sections of spectrum, but in my area, it’s only using band n71, which is mainly good for range and not raw performance. Dish also has access to a few other bands, including one called band 70. Despite how close it is numerically to 71, n70 is an entirely different animal, bundling together three different blocks of spectrum.
McCarty says that band 70 is “really going to help us with speed and throughput from a customer’s perspective.” The one issue is that very few phones support it at the moment — and the S22 doesn’t. Dish could be broadcasting n70 from every tower it has right now, and it’d still be a bit before it’ll actually do Project Genesis customers any good.
The company doesn’t really want its customers worrying about bands, spectrum, or even whose towers they’re actually connecting to, though. One of the things McCarty mentioned several times is Genesis’ “seamless coverage,” where your phone will automatically connect to other carriers’ towers if there aren’t any Dish ones around. “That’s something we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback on,” he said. “Places where people typically experience a dead spot on one network, it’s now working because we’re sort of aggregating multiple at the same time.” If you’re in an area where Dish’s coverage isn’t available, you’ll automatically be handed off to AT&T or T-Mobile’s network. (The latter is a new development since the last time we tested, but I haven’t ever noticed my phone connecting to any T-Mobile towers — as one of the carrier’s former customers, that seems like the system is functioning as intended.)
It sounds like Dish is planning on keeping its partnerships around even if it builds out its network to the point where it could be considered a fourth major US carrier — which is ostensibly the goal here. During a conversation about whether the company was planning on posting coverage maps showing where its network is available (the answer is pretty much no, by the way — McCarty called coverage maps “a thing of the past”), I asked if Dish would consider doing a map in the future once it had mostly built out its network.
“I think our plan is to use the power of multiple 5G networks versus just sort of leaning on kind of one or the other, right? So I think this is a strategic advantage that we have to be honest, is the fact that, you know, we’ve got great partnerships in the space,” McCarty said. “We’re building out the first 5G native network, and when you combine that with some of the existing 5G networks that exist in the US, our plan is really just to provide seamless kind of coverage regardless of where you’re at, from a customer’s experience.”
That strategy aligns with what Dish has been promising for Boost Infinite so far. Earlier this year, it was advertising that service by saying it’d combine “the power of three networks,” according to CNET. It’s a bit of an odd strategy, given how much work Dish is going to have to put in to get its coverage to where it’s legally required to be — just imagine a carrier like Verizon building out its network to cover most of the US and then shuffling its users off onto AT&T if it provides better service in an area — but I suppose that’s meant to be the unique selling point here.
Dish is making it clear that it plans on keeping backup networks around — but it still has to build its own
To be fair, I do agree with McCarty that the only people who would really care about exactly which network they’re using are the people whose main goal is testing the service and covering the rollout and uber-nerds — though that is the sort of clientele that’s going to be attracted to a carrier at the beginning. To the FCC, though, it’s very important where exactly the company’s rolled out its own service.
Because of Dish’s agreement with the government, it has to cover 70 percent of the US population with its own 5G network by June 14th, 2023, or else it’ll risk billions in fines. So for all its talk of having customers seamlessly roam through the blanket of coverage provided by its partners, the carrier actually does need to deploy a lot of towers — and quickly. To be clear, while that process may not be easy for the public to track, Dish does file maps with the FCC to let the regulators know what’s up — they just don’t get shared with the public.
I asked Dish about its rollout plans and whether it planned on taking a bunch of new cities online all at once, like it did with the original launch. I also asked if it had added any new cities; currently, the Project Genesis website still lists the same 128 locations as it did when the service officially launched in June.
The company says it’s been both filling out coverage in the cities on that list and in new cities. Dish wouldn’t talk about what new areas it’s been expanding to, though. “At this point, we’re not willing to announce any new markets, but that doesn’t mean it’s not available,” said Meredith Diers, Dish’s PR lead manager. McCarty mentioned that “as you go through the process on the Project Genesis website, if you’re in one of the new areas, you would be able to proceed and connect to the network.”
After a few months, it’s a little hard to know what to make of Project Genesis. On one hand, I’m still impressed by how mostly normal it feels to use this phone that has so much unusual stuff going on under the hood. But then I’ll run into a spot where service just doesn’t work for some reason, or I’ll have to make a change to my account, and I’m reminded of the odyssey I had to go on just to get my phone in the first place.
After my recent round of testing, I was mostly left wondering what exactly Dish has been focusing on these past few months. It seems that the answer is mainly growing out its network; while I haven’t seen a ton of evidence for that in Spokane, CellMapper’s data for other cities shows that the company has hundreds of towers. Poking around, I was able to find dozens that were first spotted in the last month or two. Sure, there’s the saying that if you build it, they will come — but I don’t think most people are going to want to spend 20-30 minutes with chat support to update basic things on their account.
Given Project Genesis’ role as a sort of test network, it may be tempting to dismiss this sort of thing as an early adopter tax. But Dish isn’t marketing it as a beta anymore; it launched the service as a commercial offering. If I were in its shoes, I’d worry about what this sort of experience would do to the network’s reputation before it really even has the chance to lift off.
When I was talking to Dish about VoNR, Benjamin Sanders, director of retail wireless operations, said: “We want to make sure that when we deploy our VoNR services for our customers, it’s really good and it meets up to the expectations of a voice call.” I can absolutely appreciate that; I just wish the same philosophy was being applied to all of the Project Genesis experience.