Dish Network recently obtained permission from the FCC to conduct carrier aggregation tests for 5G technology in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The Special Temporary Authorization (STA) from the FCC is effective from April 1, 2022, to October 1, 2022, for tests involving the 600 MHz band. A separate filing for Cheyenne, in which the 1695-1710 MHz frequencies are to be used, also was granted, and it’s good through September 20, 2022.
Dish doesn’t name the manufacturers of the equipment on its applications, just that it’s coming from “generic” mobile device and base station suppliers.
Since the first of the year, Dish also received grants to conduct 5G tests in Denver, Oklahoma City, San Diego and Las Vegas. Dish has identified Las Vegas as its first commercial 5G market, although it has yet to conduct a full commercial launch there. The applications for those markets don’t explicitly state what it’s testing and include various spectrum bands, including 1695-1710 MHz, 1755-1760 MHz and 2155-2160 MHz.
Dish representatives declined to discuss the applications with Fierce, so any interpretation of exactly what they’re doing is based on terse explanations from the filings.
Side note: Another notable filing would have Dish combining its A-block license with E and F blocks owned by Comcast in the 600 MHz band to test carrier aggregation in Nashville, Tennessee. That request is still pending at the FCC.
Carrier aggregation comes into focus
Based on the FCC forms, it looks like Dish is trying to get its collective head around carrier aggregation – which is a fairly common technique used in wireless networks to improve performance. It can be applied in an intra-band scenario, where it’s using the same frequency band, or it can be done inter-band, where more than one spectrum band is used.
However, since Dish is building a 5G network from scratch – meaning no LTE network of its own to fall back onto – and it’s doing so based on virtualized and open Radio Access Network (RAN) technologies, it’s fielding a whole new ball game, and one that U.S. operators have never navigated quite like this.
Therefore, it’s not that surprising at this stage that it’s assessing carrier aggregation in this way, although one could argue it’s late in the game. Dish is supposed to finally, after quite a few fits and starts, be launching a 5G network that covers 20% of the U.S. population by June. That commitment expands to 70% of the U.S. population by June 2023.
In Cheyenne, Dish holds the 600 MHz A-block license. However, similar to what it aims to do in Nashville, Dish said it anticipates needing more low-band spectrum in some markets to meet customer demand in the future.
“When and if additional 600 MHz spectrum becomes available, either when the Commission auctions unassigned spectrum or through future partnerships, Dish plans to use carrier aggregation at the market level to combine multiple 600 MHz assets to add capacity and improve data throughput speeds,” the company stated on one of the applications.
“Carrier aggregation is really a proven technology,” said Brian Goemmer, president of Allnet Insights. Because Dish has Las Vegas running to some extent, “they probably already have done all the end-to-end testing with inter-band carrier aggregation,” and now they’re doing testing of intra-band carrier aggregation to see if it works, and if it doesn’t work to their specs, it’s about figuring out what’s going wrong.
What’s up with Cheyenne?
Although the latest spate of applications involves other markets, a significant amount of work seems to be happening in Cheyenne, and it’s not entirely alone. Back in 2017, T-Mobile flipped the switch on the first of its 600 MHz sites in Cheyenne using Nokia equipment.
Dish is known to have a fully-virtualized standalone 5G core network in Cheyenne, where in 2020 it conducted a test to integrate and validate end-to-end 5G connections using the industry's first O-RAN compliant FDD radio, developed by Taiwan-based MTI.
In the C-band auction, Dish spent about $2.5 million to obtain just one license, and that was for Cheyenne, which is about 100 miles north of Dish’s Denver-area headquarters.
Integrating the parts
Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said during the company’s last earnings conference call that it’s wound up having to be the systems integrator, a role it wasn’t really anticipating, because someone has to act as the middleman among vendors and be the “glue that holds them together.”
Traditionally, if an Ericsson or Nokia won a contract, the carrier would tell them what it wants and it’s up to the vendor to test and deliver. With open RAN, multiple vendors are pretty much the name of the game since the whole idea is to get away from a single vendor-driven approach.
“Dish is having to coordinate more of those activities without a single point of contact,” in essence, acting as its own systems integrator, Goemmer said. “They’re doing a kitchen remodel, and they’re having to talk to all of the subcontractors.”
Spectrum, spectrum, spectrum
Of course, spectrum is to wireless what location is to real estate, an analogy that is about as old as the wireless industry itself.
Licensees’ spectrum holdings vary market to market. On a national basis, Dish has 18 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum and T-Mobile has 31 MHz, and that’s both uplink and downlink, according to Goemmer. Essentially, that means T-Mobile has about 30% more capacity.
But Dish owns spectrum licenses in at least six different bands, and the scattered nature of it would seem to point to the need for carrier aggregation. “It’s a necessity, whether it’s late or not too late,” said Bill Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures. “They’ve got to do it and they need experience doing it.”
Dish hired industry veterans like Marc Rouanne, Dave Mayo and Stephen Bye to head its wireless networks division, and they all have plenty of experience. The catch is Dish is implementing its 5G network using new techniques running in the cloud and tapping open RAN principles in a way that Ergen predicts will put the U.S. back into a leadership position – but not without some “growing” pains.
“They’ve got people who’ve been around the block,” Ho said. “At the same time, this is new stuff.”