In the US mobile market, Dish Network appears to have replaced T-Mobile US as the audacious upstart that could change the game for all players.

Eight years ago T-Mobile started shaking up the market with aggressive pricing and marketing. Dish’s brand of disruption is different; the company wants to build a new wireless network using open interfaces and cloud-based infrastructure. Whereas T-Mobile schooled its competitors on consumer marketing, Dish may teach them valuable lessons about the brave new world of open RAN.

By eschewing custom hardware and central offices, Dish expects to spend far less on its network than competitors do, currently budgeting $10 billion for the build.

The company has assembled an impressive roster of partners to help build its greenfield 5G network. The biggest and most impactful will be Amazon, which will host the Dish network in the AWS cloud. Dish’s other partners include Nokia, Intel, Qualcomm, MTI, VMware, Fujitsu, Mavenir, Altiostar, Matrixx Software, Ciena’s Blue Planet, Hansen Technologies, DigitalRoute, Palo Alto Networks and Netcracker.

The Amazon Edge
Dish announced its partnership with Amazon on April 21 and a few days later the company wowed Wall Street with its comments about what that partnership could mean.

“Commentary around AWS suggests, while perhaps not a true ‘financial’ partner, AWS is a deeply vested partner, building infrastructure on their own dime, with mutual benefits to take on a sizable ‘true’ 5G TAM (Total Addressable Market),” the analyst team at Cowen and Company wrote in a note released to investors.

Despite subscriber losses in both its satellite TV and nascent wireless business, Dish Network saw its stock price pop more than 8 per cent after its earnings call with analysts.

Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen predicted that Dish will be AWS’ “biggest customer” and said that AWS could end up being Dish’s biggest network customer as well.

Marc Rouanne, EVP and Chief Network Officer at Dish Network, gushed about the flexibility of a cloud-based network versus a traditional telco network that often operates with frozen releases and 18-month upgrade cycles.  “We scale up and down during the day, during the night”, said Rouanne. “[If] we need a new platform to test a new private use case, we just scale it. It’s quite fascinating for engineers to see what we can do now”.

Private use cases are going to be a big part of Dish’s 5G business, according to the company. “We’re seeing a terrific demand,” said Dish’s Stephen Bye, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, on the analyst call. “We are in the process of working with customers and prospective customers on private networks that are not limited by the geography of our national footprint.”

Edge computing is expected to be a cornerstone of private network deployments because enterprise customers want to process large amounts of data at or near their premises instead of sending it to a data center far away. Amazon’s technology appears to give Dish an advantage here. The operator will use AWS Local Zones and AWS Outposts to process workloads at the network edge. AWS Local Zones are infrastructure hubs in population centers, while AWS Outposts are meant to be at an enterprise location, or even a 5G base station, according to Dish.

There is nothing to keep Dish’s competitors from working with AWS at the edge, and indeed some already are. But AWS appears to be headed for a particularly tight integration with Dish.  The company has said its developers will be able to use the same programming tools to interact with the 5G network that they use for compute infrastructure.

Open questions about open RAN 
Operators and vendors around the world are exploring open RAN, so Dish Network’s decision to base its network on this technology is getting lots of attention.

The idea of using open RAN to launch a nationwide network in the US still seems extremely ambitious to some. In comments filed recently with the Federal Communications Commission, T-Mobile described the idea of a US open RAN network as “speculative at best”. But Dish is taking baby steps; the company isn’t promising a full-fledged nationwide network on Day One.

“They can definitely launch the network”, said Prakash Sangam, founder and principal of Tantra Analyst. He said that the current limitations of open RAN will not prevent Dish from lighting up networks in Las Vegas (the first city it has announced) and perhaps several other locations.

But supporting high levels of traffic and multiple use cases through network slicing will require more from open RAN, Sangam warned. He noted that the technology does not currently support carrier aggregation, which Dish and other operators will need in order to fully leverage their spectrum holdings. Sangam pointed to the work Qualcomm and Vodafone are undertaking to create new open RAN reference designs as an important step in the right direction. By the time open RAN networks need to support carrier aggregation, the silicon they need may be there.

Disruption or discouragement?
Dish Network wants to serve demanding corporate customers on a full-fledged 5G network built from scratch, for less money than its competitors invest in their networks in a single year. If Dish succeeds, it will almost certainly disrupt the wireless industry by accelerating the journey to the cloud for multiple operators.

But if Dish Network’s success is spotty and customers shun the service, it could discourage other operators from investing heavily in public cloud and/or open RAN, at least temporarily.

The company has said all along that it doesn’t expect everything to work perfectly from the start. It will be important to pay close attention to Dish’s inevitable missteps. Hopefully operators will learn from these instead of using them as reasons to limit their own experiments with new technologies.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.