As the U.S. major league baseball season gets underway, it is interesting to draw some parallels with the wireless industry. The wireless business league leaders are the three Tier 1 mobile network operators – AT&T (NYSE: T), T-Mobile (NASDAQ: TMUS), and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) – down from four after TMUS’ merger with Sprint a year ago.
2021 is an expansion year for the industry with the addition of DISH Networks (NASDAQ: DISH) as the fourth national MNO.
Heavy hitters in the MNO supply chain are the radio and core equipment vendors Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), Nokia (NYSE: NOK), and Samsung along with a deep bench of high caliber specialty manufacturers that make everything from antennas, cables, and connectors to steel products, power systems, batteries, and test gear.
Supporting the league leaders in the middle of the lineup are the stalwart Big 3 tower companies – American Tower (NYSE: AMT), Crown Castle (NYSE: CCI), and SBA Communications (NASDAQ: SBAC).
DISH’s strategy for building its network is an unorthodox departure from the established MNOs’ playbooks.
First, DISH is starting with a clean slate, jumping right into 5G without being encumbered by legacy 3G or 4G LTE infrastructure.
Secondly, it opted to forego a proprietary network design believing that would be too expensive to deploy. The company has committed $10 billion in capital expenditures over seven years. Given that the league leaders regularly belt out that much each year, DISH’s capex would seem like a minor league play. (see, Wireless CapEx Confidential).
At the same time, DISH was concerned that building a proprietary network would take a long time to reach nationwide coverage, especially since the company faces strict FCC deadlines to activate its considerable spectrum holdings. (see, DISH Progressing with 5G Network Build)
DISH instead is opting for an Open RAN architecture that is predominantly software-based. O-RAN takes advantage of software-programmable, commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) radio equipment and extensive cloud-based functions for service delivery, and network operations and billing support.
To meet its time and money commitments, DISH has recruited an extensive supplier lineup of major and minor players. DISH believes these vendors can meld into a cohesive team that will produce a lot of hits.
With a minimal spend plan, DISH will rely on this lineup to help shift financial outlays from capex to operating expense.
The primary O-RAN network element is the radio unit. DISH drafted Japan-based Fujitsu and Taiwan-based Microelectronics Technology Inc. (MTI), both seasoned radio manufacturers, to deliver programmable RUs, starting in 2H21.
The O-RAN Core will be supplied by veteran Nokia which will also provide its NetGuard software suite to maintain high priority 5G network security.
Overlaying the RAN and Core is cloud-native software from a roster of big and small players that will execute on various service plays for consumers and businesses alike.
DISH picked Altiostar to provide virtualized RAN (vRAN) capabilities. With Altiostar’s software solution, DISH says it will be able to dynamically scale its network depending on the type of applications and services being deployed.
O-RAN software solutions have a lot of bench strength from more than a half-dozen providers including Mavenir, VMware, Digital Bank, Hansen, Blue Planet, and Matrixx.
Agreements with chipset OEMs, Qualcomm and Intel, ensure that each company’s 5G RAN controller platform will be incorporated into both network elements and devices used in DISH’s network.
Certainly, DISH will need infrastructure to support its O-RAN deployments. The company has inked long-term master lease agreements with the Big Three towercos, Vertical Bridge, and seven smaller to mid-tier tower companies, along with a handful of independent tower owners. Tallying up that scorecard, DISH’s network could grow to over 60,000 towers nationwide.
All the cell sites on these towers must connect back to the Core. So, DISH called up four fiber network providers, Everstream, Segra, Zayo and Uniti (NASDAQ: UNIT), for both the fronthaul and backhaul connectivity. Where fiber does not reach a tower, DISH has Aviat’s point-to-point microwave systems on-deck.
Despite an impressive starting line-up of large and small vendors alike that are ready to compete at a major league network level, DISH has a challenge in managing such a mix of players. While the roster looks full, new vendor sign ups could follow.
Once RU deliveries get underway, DISH is expected to throw out its first pitch before the end of the year.
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor