Just a few years ago, Dish Network's sprawling campus in Littleton, Colorado, quartered a massive customer care call center for its satellite TV service. After a major refurbish, it is now home to more than 1,000 Dish employees who are all working to either build or sell the company's new 5G network.
The transformation of Dish's wireless headquarters – dubbed "Riverfront" by those who work there – mirrors the metamorphosis that Dish chairman and founder, Charlie Ergen, plans for his company as a whole. The future, he says, is 5G. And Dish's aging satellite TV business will be the cash cow to fund it.
Ultimately, Dish's Riverfront campus houses Ergen's ambitions for a grand third act to cap his long and storied career in the telecom industry. After bootstrapping Dish's satellite TV business in the 1980s and then making an early play in the streaming video industry with Sling TV, Ergen is now hoping to make it big in 5G.
The odds are against him. Dish faces behemoths AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile in the US wireless sector, and most financial analysts and investors don't believe Ergen can be successful.
It's up to the Dish employees working in Riverfront to prove them wrong.
In search of home
The history of Dish's Riverfront campus is as rich as Ergen's own career. It was built in the 1980s as a mall for Littleton, a southwestern suburb of Denver, but the mall quickly failed. The property changed hands several times before Ergen snapped it up in the 1990s and made it the headquarters for his burgeoning satellite TV business.
According to company officials who remember the move, Dish took over the property from a nursery and garden center that had been using the building's skylights to protect its young trees. Before Ergen could move in, dozens of dead or dying trees had to be removed from the building's main concourse.
Dish Network remained headquartered in the building – which sits along the South Platte River – until 2003, when Ergen moved his growing company to its current headquarters roughly 15 miles east, in Englewood, Colorado, into a building dubbed Meridian. After the move, Riverfront was repurposed as Dish's massive satellite TV call center.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and hundreds of Dish's call center workers began working from home – where they remain to this day.
The move was fortuitous, though. As the coronavirus raged around the US in the early months of 2020, Dish's Dave Mayo, the executive in charge of building the company's new 5G network, was looking for a headquarters for what he described as his "wireless startup." Riverfront sat waiting.
A return to the office
Mayo has previously discussed the "Herculean task" he faces in constructing a nationwide wireless network. To speed up Dish's 5G buildout, he decided to decentralize it into four major geographic regions and 36 discrete markets. Giving each market leader some general network design guidelines – alongside plenty of leeway to address local requirements – allowed Dish to move more quickly in order to meet its first government-mandated 5G coverage target.
While assembling Dish's core networking team in the company's Riverfront offices, Mayo said he relied heavily on LinkedIn to find suitable candidates and spread Dish's 5G story. Zoom played a prominent role in his hiring process.
However, Mayo quickly discovered that his team simply couldn't work from home and move quickly enough to meet the company's 5G buildout targets.
"We just couldn't get enough done," agreed Jeff McSchooler, Dish's EVP of wireless operations.
In 2020, less than two months after going remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayo reassembled Dish's wireless networking team in Riverfront. They've been there ever since, in-person and full time.
Mayo said Dish's employees managed a return to the office during the pandemic by masking up and maintaining physical distancing across Riverfront's thousands of square feet of cubicles – mostly unused throughout 2020.
A tall order
The Dish executives who gathered in Riverfront in the early days of 2020 faced a challenging requirement: to cover 20% of the US population with 5G by June 14, 2022. While Mayo assembled his networking team, other Dish Wireless groups joined Riverfront to oversee parts of the company's planned 5G business, from enterprise sales efforts (under the leadership of Stephen Bye) to Boost MVNO operations (headed by Stephen Stokols). Virtually all of Dish's core wireless team today works full time under the Riverfront roof.
Dish's decision not to embrace the pandemic-inspired work-from-home ethos that other companies have adopted has affected Dish's ability to attract and retain employees, according to those working for the company. But the perks of the job – building a brand new, nationwide 5G network in a public cloud using untested open RAN principals – is too compelling for many to ignore.
"People in the wireless industry knew what this meant," Mayo explained.
Indeed, Dish isn't shy about its corporate aspirations, which are painted in huge lettering on a wall near the Riverfront entrance:
Dish maintains a countdown clock in Riverfront, too. Ergen first installed one in Dish's Meridian headquarters prior to the company's 5G agreement with T-Mobile and the US Department of Justice in 2019. The clock showed exactly how much time Dish had left to build a wireless network.
Now, Dish's countdown clock sits in Riverfront and alerts employees to the company's next big buildout target: June 14, 2023. That's when Dish is required to cover 70% of the US population with 5G.
During my recent tour of Dish's HQ, I strode with company officials past hundreds of cubicles as we headed to the building's far western end. There, behind several sets of security doors, sat Dish's Network Operations Center, or NOC.
Virtually all major telecom network operators maintain a NOC of some kind. It's essentially the war room where they can monitor and control all aspects of their network.
I've toured Boingo's NOC in Los Angeles, and it reminded me of NASA's mission control room as portrayed in the movie Apollo 13. Specifically, dozens of computer stations faced a big bank of monitors, much like seats in a movie theater. The setup allows everyone in the room to work at their own computers while also keeping an eye on major events happening on the main screen.
No pictures allowed
Dish's NOC looks similar, albeit with more computers and more screens than NASA used during the Apollo 13 crisis. Dish would not let me take pictures of its NOC, so the below narrative will have to suffice.
The NOC is broken up into three distinct rooms connected via see-through glass walls. The first contains more than a dozen computer stations and is Dish's Integration War Room (IWR).
Running 24/7, the room is devoted to activating new Dish cell sites (the company currently operates an estimated 4,000 sites, on its way to about 30,000). Every time a new one comes online, the team in the IWR works to test it and make sure it's functioning properly.
Oftentimes, executives from Dish's vendors are also in the room to help troubleshoot problems. Mayo said he expects the room to remain staffed for the next few years, all day and all night, as the company builds its 5G network.
The second room, accessed through a door in the IWR, leads into Dish's security operation. Staffed 24/7 by around a dozen technicians, the room is dedicated to protecting Dish's 5G network from hackers, malicious code and other cyber threats.
When I expressed surprise at the number of full-time technicians dedicated to network security, the executive in charge of the room chuckled and said the operation will only grow as Dish's network and customer base expands. The network is constantly under attack from domestic and international threats, he explained.
The main event
Finally, after passing through a door in Dish's security room, we arrived at the company's main NOC room. At the front is an enormous spread of monitors, roughly ten yards across and two yards high. All of them are visible from not only the main NOC room, but also the IWR and the security room through glass partitions. Dish officials explained that they can monitor every aspect of the company's 5G network from the NOC, calling up all kinds of information on the room's monitors to troubleshoot problems.
During my tour, company officials displayed information about Dish's cell sites in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, because those were the sites they were working on. Alerts and alarms highlighted things like "high temperature," "power supply faulty," and information on whether the cell site contained copper (a common target for thieves). Also on the monitors: CNN and other news sources, in case of major events like storms or attacks.
"When you have this much equipment out there, something is always not happy," said McSchooler, who is in charge of Dish's NOC in Riverfront. He added that he is also able to log into the system remotely, and that he often does so at home in the evening.
"I'm a trust-but-verify kind of guy," he said.
Dish's Mayo said the company is in the process of building another NOC in Dallas for redundancy. That should be up and running next year, he said.
Selfies, corporate culture and the future
As my tour of Riverfront wound down, Dish's Mayo walked me past a few other noteworthy stops. The first was a hallway dedicated to all Dish's vendors.
Each vendor's logo is clearly displayed and assembled together, they illustrate the extensive partner ecosystem Dish is relying on to build its 5G network. The hallway has already popped up several times in my LinkedIn feed as various Dish vendor executives post selfies from the Riverfront.
Beyond that, there are plenty of examples of the culture Dish is trying to cultivate around its new 5G business. For example, the company has taken over a nearby building – formerly a Mexican restaurant – to house the team in charge of its Denver market network buildout. Dish hasn't yet launched in Denver but continues to use it to test various 5G technologies.
Mayo explained that each of Dish's big US markets have their own dedicated network team. And he said that each of those teams has developed its own unique way of doing things, its own specific culture.
For example, Dish's Denver market team initially worked inside of Riverfront's main building. But Mayo moved them across a parking lot and into a separate building in order to allow them to develop their own distinct corporate culture.
As my tour of Riverfront ended, I wondered whether the executives working in the building would ultimately be successful. Dish faces some serious obstacles in chasing its 5G ambitions and a lot of unanswered questions. Will the US market support another 5G network? Will an open RAN design and a 5G focus really catapult Dish past huge heavyweights like AT&T and T-Mobile? And can Dish entice business customers to a 5G network that's brand new and relatively untested?
Another worry that continues to nag: What will the network automation trend mean for Dish's Riverfront employees? With the rise of automation technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), will human technicians no longer be needed? Already Rakuten in Japan boasts a 5G network workforce of just 250 people.
I don't know the answers to those questions, so I can't predict whether Ergen's big 5G gambit will be successful. But it's hard not to root for a scrappy underdog. And that's exactly what Dish is in the wireless industry.
- Dish's 5G goes live across the country
- Will Dish move into 'phase 2' of its 5G buildout?
- The time I visited a Dish 5G cell site