Dish is trying something that no one has been able to do for a long time: building a new nationwide mobile network from scratch. The 5G service, called Project Genesis, finally went live in “more than 120 cities” two weeks ago, and my colleague and I immediately signed up to test it out.
From the beginning, we had some big questions: how fast will this new network be? Could we even find Dish service? And did the company launch Genesis before it was ready to fulfill its contractual obligations with the government and avoid tens of millions of dollars in fines?
Given the errors the signup process had, I didn’t have high expectations when I unpacked my Project Genesis-specific Samsung Galaxy S22. But after a week of testing in Spokane, Washington, I can’t say the network is an abject failure — or a huge success. It is, as the name implies, just a start. And if you go looking for them, it’s easy to find the limits of the network.
The first and most important is the coverage. Dish seems to have done a good job covering quite a bit of Spokane. Using an app called CellMapper, I was able to tell if my phone was receiving service from Dish’s cellular network or if it fell back on coverage from AT&T, which pays Dish to serve as a backstop for his network. I’ve definitely found areas where my phone is starting to use AT&T’s towers instead of Dish’s, but I got Project Genesis 5G all over downtown and on much of the highway. I would say it vastly exceeded my coverage expectations for a brand new network.
Actually using the Project Genesis network doesn’t feel that impressive, though. I’ve had major issues indoors where data is either slowing down (think sub-20 or even sub-10 Mbps) or not working at all. I had a very frustrating experience at a restaurant where I had to connect to WiFi so I could message my wife, and there have been several times when I’ve had to switch from cellular at home because Dish’s network just wouldn’t work. I don’t work there. To be clear, these are not buildings where I would expect problems; my normal Verizon powered phone works fine at home.
This is not really how it should work. If you’re somewhere not covered by Dish’s towers, your phone should automatically switch to AT&T’s (and soon T-Mobile’s) network. Most of the time this worked seamlessly – it was only indoors where it struggled. The backup network is good news for anyone who frequently travels outside of Genesis’ coverage area, which is probably everyone who uses Genesis for now. (Due to an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission, Dish must now cover 20 percent of Americans and up to 75 percent by 2025.) You don’t seem to be getting a watered-down version of the service from AT&T either; I was in New York City for a few days this week, far, far away from a Dish tower, and was able to get a whopping 317 Mbps from an AT&T tower.
(My Houston-area colleague, on the other hand, has been on AT&T’s network the entire time, though he didn’t make it to the Westpark Tollway stretch where CellMapper’s crowdsourced map identified three Dish towers.)
Back to using Dish’s actual network as that’s what I use most of the time when I’m home in Spokane. I would describe the experience away from home or in a car as generally ‘fine’. Aside from a few hiccups where the music I was streaming would pause and buffer for a while, the service was perfectly usable for browsing the web, watching the occasional video, and texting. When doing real speed tests, I got about 130 Mbps in most situations, although I could get 246 Mbps anywhere. Later, when I walked through that general neighborhood, I couldn’t get close to those speeds.
While 130Mbps is fine for my purposes, it’s solid LTE tier and not exactly what you’d expect from a network touted as ‘cloud-native Smart 5G’. What gives? The only Dish towers I’ve found in my town use the n71 band to provide service. In terms of 5G, this is a relatively “low” band, meaning it’s optimized for range rather than performance. As PCMags Sascha Segan points out, Dish also has the rights to use the n66 band. While that spectrum probably doesn’t match the performance of C-Band carriers like AT&T and Verizon, at least it would be faster than n71. However, if we look at CellMapper data, the only place anyone using the app has connected is to an n66 tower from Dish, in Las Vegas, which was a testing ground for the network.
I’ll bet that for a lot of people, though, the performance I saw would be perfectly acceptable — especially at the $30 a month for unlimited everything Dish is charging right now. While not quite comparable, AT&T’s cheapest unlimited plan starts at $50.
But there are some other indicators that this is a new service. Battery life on my Genesis phone is terrible† The S22 is known to have relatively poor battery life, but there have been days when I had to charge mine twice, even if I had barely used it. One night I went to bed with my phone on about 20 percent battery. When I woke up about six hours later, it was completely dead.
There are a few factors that I think could be to blame. One is the fact that I almost always disconnected the phone from Wi-Fi because the Project Genesis app – which benefits early customers – makes sure you use mobile if you want to get points for the various things it asks you. (make calls, text people, browse websites, play games, watch videos). This makes sense, as the purpose of the app is to test the network, but I often forget to turn Wi-Fi back on, leaving the phone reliant on a battery-hungry cell phone.
Then there’s Dish’s “Network Companion” app, which the company tells me comes preinstalled to send information about your network experience; things like when you drop a call (something I haven’t experienced yet, although there are reports of phone calls on Dish’s network not be so great in Las Vegas?) or how your device is performing on the network. It doesn’t seem to do that very efficiently, as Android’s built-in battery monitoring system rated it as the thirstiest app on my phone several times. Dish has told me it’s investigating the issue, and usage seems to stabilize when I’m roaming, but it’s definitely not fun to see a carrier-installed app draining resources.
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend Project Genesis to, say, my relatives who don’t like acting as early adopters, used to be amazed at how often it felt like using a normal cell phone. Yes, the battery issues really made it feel like a beta experience, but if I just gave my phone to a random person on the street and told them to surf around a bit, I don’t think they would guess it was running on what is essentially a brand new type of network.
Much of that, of course, is due to the fact that Dish falls back on AT&T’s network when you leave the coverage area. It’s also down to the fact that I have relatively little need for my phone – drag racing the Project Genesis S22 with my Verizon-powered iPhone Mini produced some pretty embarrassing results for Dish, especially since the iPhone was mostly running on LTE and not on. 5G . But in theory, Dish will get better as time goes on as the company starts bringing new spectrum online (which, again, it’s legally obliged to do† Perhaps the boundaries are even further from my daily life.