Like everyone else in the wireless industry, I’ve been closely watching Dish Network as it attempts to build a greenfield cloud-native 5G network and become a successful competitor to existing nationwide operators T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon.
And if you’ve been reading this column over the past year or so, you know that I’ve been critical of the company’s repeated delays in launching its first 5G market. To recap, Dish initially said it would launch its 5G in Las Vegas by the end of 2020. Then the company pushed that launch date back to the first part of 2021 and then back again – to the third quarter of 2021. Now the company is saying it will “beta” launch the Las Vegas market in the fourth quarter of 2021 but that beta launch will run for 90 days, which means the network won’t be commercially available until early 2022.
I recently spoke with Dave Mayo, EVP of network development at Dish, about the company’s 5G network deployment and while he acknowledged that Dish has been off with its launch estimates, he insists that these timing glitches aren’t any indication of a bigger problem. “Our plans and timing are not perfect, but what we are doing is new,” Mayo said. “And we are committed to doing this right and ensuring that we deliver a great customer experience.”
Mayo added that if building the network correctly takes longer than the company originally anticipated, that’s OK because Dish wants to make sure that its new network takes advantage of the benefits of Open RAN. “We think the benefits of Open RAN are staggering,” Mayo said. “And it will give us the ability to manage the network in ways that the others [operators], can’t.”
Dish has said all along that its 5G network will be cloud native, allowing it to adapt and launch new services quickly. Open RAN is a big part of that effort and Dish believes that this will enable it to have access to more vendors and steer clear of proprietary hardware.
Why greenfield is different
When we talk about what Dish is doing, it’s probably worth a reminder that it’s been a very long time since any mobile operator built a wireless network from scratch in the U.S. Perhaps the closest comparison that I can make is when Sprint built its CDMA network using 1900 MHz PCS spectrum back in 1996. That CDMA network is now owned by T-Mobile and slated to be decommissioned early next year.
Mayo, who has decades of experience working in wireless (first with Western Wireless and later with T-Mobile), said that in his lengthy career he has never been tasked with building a network from scratch in multiple major markets at once. In fact, all of the existing nationwide wireless networks today are a hodgepodge of wireless networks that were built separately by different companies and then culled together through acquisitions. Of course, integrating different carrier networks is not an easy task – it requires engineering acumen. But integration challenges are different from what Dish is experiencing.
That’s why, Mayo said, it was important for Dish to give its regional managers so much authority to make decisions about the network. As I noted in my last column, Dish’s regional general managers have a tremendous amount of responsibility for the network – from site development to network design and operations. This is dramatically different from regional managers at other carriers. Those regional managers primarily oversee the financial performance and sales in their markets.
Mayo said that Dish’s decentralized management structure is necessary because the regional managers must be able to use their local knowledge to make adjustments to the network. “They need flexibility,” he said.
For example, Dish is using databases that tell the company where towers and cell sites exist in in every city, but the database doesn’t tell them if there is an obstacle that might cause interference. “There are things that you can only know from being in the field,” Mayo said.
And Mayo added that he’s not concerned about inconsistencies occurring because these regional managers are making calls about the network. He said that he still has a centralized system for coordinating everything and for making decisions about the transport and backhaul.
But one thing that has been a welcome surprise about Dish’s network buildout has been the availability of towers that are ready for collocation. In the past, Mayo said that building coverage in a market would take time because towers had to be built. Today that doesn’t happen very often. Over the years, U.S. operators have needed more capacity and so more tower sites were constructed to handle all that traffic. That has made it easier for Dish to find sites for its equipment. Plus, there is also a lot more fiber in the ground for backhaul. “Fiber is no longer an impediment,” Mayo said.
As I noted in my last column, building a wireless network from scratch isn’t easy. But my conversation with Mayo did help me to better understand the rationale behind Dish’s decision making and decentralized management structure. I’m anxiously awaiting that Las Vegas launch, as I’m sure most of you are as well.