Marek’s Take: Dish’s 5G plans may be hindered by its lack of open source expertise

One area where Dish is embracing open source is in the radio access network (RAN), which will likely be key to the company’s 5G network. (Getty Images)
Marek's take

Dish Network is now poised to become the United States’ fourth wireless carrier once T-Mobile’s $26.5 billion acquisition of Sprint is finalized. Although the merger still faces opposition from several state attorneys general, Dish is already putting the wheels in motion to build its nationwide 5G standalone network by issuing a request for proposal (RFP) to potential vendors.

Dish told the Federal Communications Commission that it will deploy a core network, and offer 5G services to at least 20% of the U.S. population by 2022. And by June 2023, the company’s network will cover 70% of the U.S. population with download speeds of at least 35 Mbps.

Dish has long said that it will have an advantage over competitors because it can build a standalone greenfield 5G network using state-of-the-art technologies like virtualization and network slicing. Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen has even compared Dish’s 5G plans to that of Rakuten Mobile, an operator that is in the midst of building a fully virtualized greenfield network in Japan.  

That’s why it is surprising that Dish has little visibility within open source communities, which is where many of the software innovations are occurring today. At deadline, Dish hadn’t responded to my inquiry asking them about their open source activities. However, I did a little digging and discovered that Dish is not a member of the Linux Foundation, nor is it a member of ETSI. A spokesperson with Linux Foundation said that the company has attended some of the organization’s events.

It does appear that Dish has a software team based in Denver that has been working on some big data projects using Pivotal’s Cloud Foundry software. Pivotal highlighted Dish in a case study to show how the company used its software to build an order management system.

O-RAN member

One area where Dish is embracing open source is in the radio access network (RAN), which will likely be key to the company’s 5G network. Dish is a member of the O-RAN Alliance. It is one of the 21 operator members of the group, which is committed to opening up the RAN.  

In April the O-RAN Alliance teamed with the Linux Foundation to create the O-RAN Software Community. The O-RAN SC is developing an open source software that can be used across the RAN and will collaborate with other projects across the operator network stack.

Dish is an O-RAN Alliance member, but the company isn’t a board member, like fellow operators AT&T and Deutsche Telekom, both of which have senior executives serving as leaders of the O-RAN Alliance. The O-RAN board is chaired by Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO. Alex Jinsung Choi, SVP of strategy and technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom, serves as the group’s operations officer.

Will Dish rely on vendors for expertise?  

Because of Dish’s limited involvement in open source activities the company may instead rely upon its vendors to navigate the open source world for it. Roy Chua, founder of research firm AvidThink, noted that open source communities are known for being places where innovation occurs. “While Dish has stated it will take a software-centric approach to its 5G virtualized network, many of the innovations are happening at open source efforts hosted by TIP [Telecom Infra Project], OCP [Open Compute Project], and the Linux Foundation,” Chua said.

However, Chua also said that Rakuten has made a lot of progress building its virtualized network by relying on its vendor partners such as AltioStar, NEC, Netcracker, Cisco, Intel and others. 

In fact, Rakuten is currently working with NEC to develop a 3.7 GHz massive MIMO 5G radio that will be manufactured by NEC in Japan.

If Dish relies upon its vendor partners to provide the open source expertise necessary to build its virtualized 5G network, its strategy will differ from its competitors in the U.S., particularly AT&T.  AT&T has made open source a huge part of its network strategy by developing and even contributing some of its software platforms [remember ECOMP?] to the open source community.

Perhaps Dish doesn’t need to be a prominent part of the open source community to move ahead with its plans for a 5G network but it seems like being involved in open source groups would make the deployment process smoother and faster. After all, building and running a wireless network isn’t an easy endeavor. —Sue