DISH Steps Up 5G Network Plans

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DISH Network (NASDAQ: DISH) is forging ahead with its 5G network deployment. Key to building a standalone wireless network is having access to infrastructure elements, primarily towers and fiber.

Since late 2020, the company has announced a series of deals with public and private tower companies.

Its biggest tower deal is with Crown Castle (NYSE: CCI). CCI will lease DISH space on up to 20,000 towers nationwide, roughly half of its U.S. installed base, along with certain fiber transport services and optionally, CCI’s pre-construction services.

DISH’s just-signed tower deal with SBA Communications (NASDAQ: SBAC) gives it access to SBAC’s 16,000 U.S. towers. The deal with Vertical Bridge adds another 6,000 towers but importantly, access to Vertical Bridge’s extensive portfolio of 300,000 U.S. sites (towers, rooftops, utility structures, billboards, convenience stores) used for wireless infrastructure deployment. 

A deal with a group of seven private towercos brings 4,000 towers while select smaller towercos are helping to fill in DISH’s footprint in various markets.

The aggregate count gives DISH access to an estimated 45,000-50,000 towers nationwide, on par with AT&T’s and Verizon’s respective wireless networks.

DISH is on an ambitious network development path. The company is developing the country’s first cloud-native Open RAN 5G network. In doing so, it is relying on a multi-vendor environment to supply different aspects of its network.

In December, the company successfully integrated and validated end-to-end 5G connections using the industry’s first Open RAN-compliant radio, developed by MTI and powered with software from Mavenir. The RAN test site was connected to DISH’s fully virtualized standalone 5G core network supplied by Nokia.

MTI and Fujitsu will supply O-RAN radio units (RUs) to DISH for its nationwide network deployment.

DISH signed agreements with four fiber vendors – Everstream, Serga, Zayo and Uniti – to provide fiber transport and dark fiber for both fronthaul and backhaul applications to connect its 5G network to sites covering approximately 60 million Americans. 

With these agreements, DISH gains access to fiber coast-to-coast, providing it the coverage, speed and bandwidth needed to connect its forthcoming markets. At sites where fiber backhaul is not available, Aviant will supply DISH with point-to-point microwave systems for backhaul.

The software aspects of the network will be prominent with numerous suppliers participating.

Mavenir will deliver cloud-native voice, data and messaging services software over 5G.

DigitalRoute offers a real-time event engine, purpose-built for complex usage-based business models that will help DISH monetize its 5G services for enterprise customers.

MATRIXX Software, with its cloud-native converged charging system (CCS) will drive DISH’s 5G value by scaling on demand and enabling dynamic pricing for network slices and other services.

VMware’s cloud platform will combine the efficiency of the distributed telco cloud, public cloud and private cloud environments while delivering consistent, low-latency edge computing.

DISH has an agreement for Hansen Technologies’ catalog-driven software solutions that enable the timely introduction and management of products and services. In addition, Ciena’s Blue Planet division will provide an automated solution that allows DISH to dynamically manage its 5G network inventory and service orders in real-time.

The company is also working with Qualcomm and Intel to develop chipsets for network equipment and devices that will operate on DISH’s specific frequency bands.

DISH’s capital expenditures were less than $500 million in 2020, as the company worked through the network engineering and site acquisition phase. It expects to incur significantly higher capex once the network deployment gets underway in earnest starting in 3Q21. DISH currently has a $10 billion capex budget for its nationwide 5G network rollout.

The company expects its first RU deliveries from Fujitsu in 2Q21. Though not yet identified, the initial deployment will take place in a large market “NFL city.” Once the initial installation is tested and fully operational, the company expects to adopt a “cookie cutter” approach, turning up multiple cities each quarter going forward.

While DISH is committed to activate its vast spectrum holdings particularly in the 700 MHz and AWS bands to cover 20 percent of the U.S. population by June 2022, company executives are driving to meet the larger required metric of covering 70 percent of the population by June 2023.

Its 600 MHz deployment must be complete by June 2025. DISH has longer terms to activate its millimeter wave spectrum. Through its Wetterhorn Wireless subsidiary company, it recently bought 5,492 Priority Access Licenses across the country in the 3.5 GHz CBRS auction and is bidding in the C-band auction.

By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor

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