Dish Network recently passed its first major 5G hurdle: covering 20% of the US population with a 5G network. However, it's still early days, and company officials acknowledge there isn't much traffic running over its brand new network yet.
If Dish is successful in its growth efforts, that will change. Thus, as the company continues to expand its 5G network, officials are planning for a future when potentially millions of customers are using its network services. And in that case, the company has a number of levers to pull in order to stay ahead of demand.
According to Dave Mayo, the Dish executive in charge of building the company's 5G network, centralized radio access network (C-RAN) technology is critical. In fact, Dish has already deployed a C-RAN network design in its Dallas and Houston markets. But, during a recent discussion with Light Reading, he said the company hasn't yet engaged in some of the advanced services supported by C-RAN, such as cell site coordination.
C-RAN is a hot topic globally as 5G is deployed. It essentially allows operators to pool baseband computing functions in a central location. That's a very different approach to traditional wireless network designs that position baseband functions at the base of each cell site.
According to Mayo, there are multiple reasons to centralize baseband functions. For example, operators can cut down on their expenses by hosting all baseband processing in one location instead of several. They also can potentially cut down on power needs.
But Mayo said the main benefit that Dish sees in C-RAN is the ability to instantly coordinate users' data traffic among nearby cell sites by using the same baseband functions. That coordination can significantly improve each user's connection and speed, he said, because of the system's improved spectral efficiency.
"The benefit for me is the spectrum," Mayo said. "There's more juice."
However, he added that cell sites running on a C-RAN architecture need to be within around 25 kilometers from the baseband processing, due to the virtually instantaneous nature of cell site coordination. Anything further away would simply be too slow.
Mayo noted that Dish's other big markets were designed with C-RAN in mind and can be updated to support the networking design as necessary.
Accelerator cards are another way for Dish to speed up its network. Most open RAN networking designs today use silicon from Intel. However, Marvell, Qualcomm and other vendors have been introducing their own products into the market, creating the opportunity for open RAN network operators to install accelerator cards into their existing network designs.
"It's a capacity augmentation," Mayo said, adding that Dish has designed its networking equipment in such a way that a technician can quickly and easily install a new accelerator card, typically doing so at the base of a cell tower.
"An accelerator card is simply more processor capability," Mayo said. "It gives you more capacity. Better, faster is probably the way to think about it."
Mayo confirmed that Dish has been testing accelerator cards from a variety of vendors, but he declined to speculate on when the company might install cards into its commercial network. He said deployment would likely be driven by the need to handle more traffic on its network.
Dish can also improve its 5G network by deploying more spectrum, though doing so would likely be relatively expensive.
Dish is currently deploying a wide range of low- and midband spectrum bands, including Band 71 (600MHz), Band 29 (700MHz) and Band 66 (AWS: 1.7GHz/2.1GHz). The company is also supporting Band 70 (AWS-4: 1.7GHz/1.9GHz) with its 5G radios and expects to begin selling Band 70 phones later this year.
But Dish also owns some Band 48 (CBRS: 3.55GHz-3.7GHz), Band 77 (C-band: 3.7GHz-3.98GHz) and Andromeda (3.45GHz-3.55GHz) spectrum holdings. Moreover, Dish owns some millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum licenses, as well as significant 12 GHz holdings that the company is hoping to eventually use in its 5G network – if it can get approval from federal regulators. Mayo said the company can deploy some of those spectrum holdings if it needs to do so to keep pace with customers' needs.
Already Dish inked a new supply agreement with 5G radio vendor Samsung. That deal calls for Samsung to support virtually all of Dish's Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) and Time Division Duplex (TDD) spectrum bands, including CBRS and Andromeda.
On CBRS specifically, Mayo said Dish is hoping to convince regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow higher-power broadcasts in the spectrum band before Dish deploys that spectrum widely. For now, the company is using its CBRS spectrum holdings for private wireless networking.
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