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Dish has a lot on its plate
by Martha DeGrasse 9/20/21

Last week a DISH Network human resources employee announced a company milestone on LinkedIn: 1,000 wireless hires. It’s only been 20 months since a federal judge signed off on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, the deal that gave DISH a foothold in the wireless business with additional spectrum, its first prepaid subscribers, and a mandate to deploy 15,000 5G sites covering 70% of the US population by June 2023.


To say DISH has been putting the pieces in place since then would be an understatement. In addition to the 1,000 hires, DISH has assembled a lengthy list of vendors and partners from inside and outside the wireless industry.


Altiostar, Amazon Web Services, American Tower, AT&T, Ciena’s Blue Planet, Crown Castle, Dell Technologies, DigitalRoute, Fujitsu, Hansen Technologies, IBM, Intel, Mavenir, MTI, Matrixx Software, MTI, Netcracker, Nokia, Oracle, Palo Alto Networks, Qualcomm, SBAC, Tucows, Vertical Bridge and VMware are all signed up to work with DISH on its 5G network.


While it’s standard operating procedure for a carrier to work with all three of the top towercos, it’s less common to see one engage this many vendors for network hardware and software. But this is the promise of open RAN and a cloud-native core: DISH will be able to mix and match solutions from different vendors within the network. 


This has already been accomplished by Japan’s Rakuten, the open RAN poster child that is using the technology to serve subscribers and has now launched a separate business unit to help other operators move to open RAN, with German MVNO 1&1 as its first major customer. 


Rakuten built an open RAN 4G network, and is currently testing 5G standalone. DISH is the first carrier to attempt a greenfield open RAN 5G build.


Tareq Amin, Rakuten CTO, spoke recently about his company’s network at the Fierce Open RAN Summit, noting that a key to the carrier’s success was assigning one software vendor to each network domain. “One software vendor for radio, one software vendor for core, one software vendor for cloud, and this simplicity created a much easier path to system integration,” Amin said. 


It is not yet clear whether DISH is following that formula, but it appears to be taking a different approach, perhaps because of the complexities of 5G. Obviously the company has multiple radio vendors, several core vendors, and several cloud service providers on its roster. DISH has said it will split its open RAN, with the Centralized Units hosted by AWS, and the Distributed Units by VMware. 


Several vendors on the list offer competing solutions, making it unclear who will do what. For example, IBM and Blue Planet both specialize in orchestration, and Netcracker and Matrixx Software both offer cloud-based BSS solutions. 


One thing is clear: DISH has a lot on its plate. In addition to the challenge of building out its physical network in a very short time frame, the company needs to figure out how to integrate software from multiple vendors in the AWS environment. And it needs to integrate its new network with AT&T’s, since users will fall back to the AT&T network in areas where DISH does not have coverage. It might be helpful for DISH if AT&T’s aggregation points were already running AWS, but AT&T has partnered with Microsoft Azure for cloud hosting.


Another complication for DISH is spectrum. Earlier this month, the company disclosed in an FCC filing that it “anticipates needing more lowband spectrum in some markets to meet customer demand in the future.” DISH said it might gain access to the spectrum it needs through FCC auctions or future partnerships. In the meantime, it wants to use some of Bluewater Wireless’s spectrum to test carrier aggregation. 


DISH plans to conduct the tests in Denver and in Las Vegas, which is set to be its first 5G market. On the company’s most recent earnings call, Chairman Charlie Ergen told investors the network should be ready for CES attendees to test in January.


For now, CES is set to proceed as planned, despite last week’s cancellation of Las Vegas’s NAB show. If CES happens, thousands of people may get a chance to experience DISH’s 5G network in action. 


DISH’s executive team has repeatedly emphasized the groundbreaking nature of its open RAN work, and has said it will not work perfectly at the outset. Whatever DISH learns in this process could be helpful to other operators, since most of them are at least paying lip service to open RAN, and many are moving forward.

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