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DISH execs say wireless network on track as March 2020 deadline looms

DISH Network Corp. executives said the company remains on track to meet a March 2020 deadline to build out a new wireless network, though discussions with potential partners in areas where existing operators have infrastructure have yielded mixed results.

"Our expectation is we're going to meet the deadlines. We know there's going to be a lot of obstacles in the way but we intend to meet that deadline," DISH Chairman Charlie Ergen said during a Feb. 13 earnings conference call.

The company faces a March 7, 2020, deadline for deploying a network that covers at least 70% of the population in many of its spectrum license areas. To meet the requirement, DISH plans to spend between $500 million and $1 billion to build a narrowband network, known as an NB-IoT network, specialized for the low-power machine-to-machine communications that characterize the internet of things.

One obstacle has been finding the right partnerships. Ergen compared it to the obstacles DISH faced when it first moved into the satellite video business.

"Some vendors refused to launch for us because they didn't think we can pay them. Some people refused to build satellites for us because they didn't think we could pay them ... But some people did believe we had a chance to be successful, and those people had become long-term vendors and partners," Ergen said.

DISH CEO Erik Carlson said he expects a similar response with DISH's wireless business. "Some people will be skeptical ... some people will look at our track record and our commitment and our business plan and they will be opportunistic," the CEO said.

For the fourth quarter of 2018, net income attributable to DISH totaled $337 million, or 64 cents per share, down from to $1.39 billion, or $2.64 per share, in the year-ago period, when DISH benefited from the impact of tax reform. The company's fourth-quarter 2017 net income included a tax benefit of about $1.2 billion.

The S&P Global Market Intelligence consensus EPS estimate for the 2018 quarter was 69 cents and 67 cents on a normalized and GAAP basis, respectively.

DISH reported total revenue of $3.31 billion for the quarter, compared to $3.48 billion in the prior-year period.

The company closed the fourth quarter with 12.32 million pay TV subscribers, including 9.90 million DISH satellite subscribers and 2.42 million subscribers on virtual provider Sling TV. Net pay TV subscribers decreased by about 334,000 in the fourth quarter, compared to net additions of 39,000 in the year-ago quarter. DISH's CEO attributed "a little bit more than half" of the company's net subscriber losses in the quarter to the company's ongoing programming disputes with Univision Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc.'s HBO / Cinemax (US).

DISH subscribers lost access to Univision channels on June 30, 2018. The blackout includes the Spanish-language programmer's broadcast networks Univision (US) and UniMás (US), as well as cable network Galavision (US). DISH and Sling TV subscribers lost access to the HBO premium networks Nov. 1, 2018, after the two sides were unable to reach a new distribution agreement.

For full year 2018, DISH's attributable net income was $1.58 billion, or $3.00 per share, compared to $2.10 billion, or $4.07 per share, in 2017.

The S&P Global Market Intelligence consensus EPS estimate for full year 2018 was $3.10 and $3.07 on a normalized and GAAP basis, respectively.

DISH reported 2018 total revenue of $13.62 billion, compared to $14.39 billion in 2017.