Dish Network may be poised to provide one of the first examples of 5G cellular communications in the United States when it rolls out a nationwide, narrowband wireless system by Jan. 25, 2020 — although the first version will use 4G LTE high-speed wireless technology. “For the first phase of our network, we have a deadline of 654 days from now to finish our internet of things (IoT) network and bring into use of some of our spectrum,” said Charlie Ergen, the company’s chairman, on March 23.
Dish Network will spend between $500 million and $1 billion to construct the system, Ergen said. The company already signed master lease agreements with some tower companies, he said, and work had begun to design the network. Dish Network already has ordered radios from several vendors, and a core network was scheduled to be completed during the summer, he added. Following testing that will start in the fall, he said, Dish Network will begin showing potential customers what its wireless network can do.
“We start and end with building a great product because we believe if we do that, ultimately, the profits will come.”
— Charlie Ergen, chairman of Dish Network
Photo by Don Bishop
Ergen said that because of entanglements affecting the radio-frequency (RF) spectrum Dish Network owns, the company missed an opportunity to capitalize on the fundamental change the advancement from 3G to 4G communications represented. But not this time, not with what he called the paradigm shift from 4G to 5G communications. Dish Network started participating in almost every FCC RF spectrum auction 15 years ago, Ergen said, together with partners purchasing the most spectrum of any participant.
“We start and end with building a great product because we believe if we do that, ultimately, the profits will come,” Ergen said, speaking at a keynote session at the Connectivity Expo conducted by the Wireless Infrastructure Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ergen said Dish Network’s product, wireless connectivity, would serve IoT, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics and autonomous vehicles, naming some of the 14 technologies he said were discussed at the World Economic Forum this year as the technologies of the next decade. He said all of them will depend on wireless connectivity.
Praising existing telephone companies, Ergen said the incumbents do a great job of providing connections, with some 300 million people connected to telephones in the United States. However, he said, in the future we will have 300billionthings connected with sensors, machines and microprocessors.
“Dish Network will take advantage of its opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper, without legacy, to go and build that network,” Ergen said. “It’s all about timing to be successful. If you’re too early, you’re going to be roadkill. If you get it just right, you have a chance.”
Although the timing is right for Dish Network to take advantage of the paradigm shift to 5G, Ergen said, the company’s RF spectrum gives it a limited amount of uplink spectrum cleared on a nationwide basis, only 5 megahertz in the H block. He said because the spectrum limitation places Dish Network in an awkward position, the company will construct its wireless network in two phases.
“The first phase is to build a nationwide network for narrowband IoT, the technology that it looks like 3GPP is going to use for massive connectivity,” Ergen said. “The second phase is to build a complete 5G nationwide network with all of our spectrum, which, with our partners, is just under 100 megahertz. It combines both low-band frequencies in the 600-MHz band and mid-band spectrum in the 2-GHz range. As new frequency bands become available, we see those as the small cell bands.”
Because of RF interference problems, Ergen said, Dish Network does not believe it would be righto use the same frequencies in small cells and macro cells, if an operator has the option of using different frequencies for small cells.
Dish Network also has some Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service spectrum, and Ergen said there is 500 megahertz of spectrum in the centimeter-wave band that he hopes the FCC will put on Spectrum Frontiers so Dish Network and others can repurpose it. Spectrum Frontiers refers to an FCC initiative to open frequency bands above 24 GHz for next-generation wireless services. Ergen said only two companies, Dish Network and DirecTV, now use the 500 megahertz of spectrum to which he referred.
The Power of a Virtual Network
Two things have to come together for Dish Network to transition its initial 4G IoT system to 5G, according to Ergen. First, some of the company’s spectrum has yet to be cleared for nationwide use. The company’s 600-MHz spectrum won’t be cleared until July 2020. Second, the 3GPP 5G standards have to be set and finalized.
“I’m not talking about the 5G that you hear about today from the incumbents,” Ergen said. “To me, that’s more marketing. They’re going to their customers and saying, ‘Hey, your phones can be a little faster.’ I’m talking about the power of what 5G can with a virtualized network, potential 1-millisecond latencies and technologies that can slice the network to allow simultaneous use of the network by multiple users in such a way that it looks like a private network to each of them. I’m talking about edge net storage and compute, which doesn’t exist in current networks.” Those characteristics of a 5G network enable applications in health care, education, agriculture, smart cities and autonomous vehicles, Ergen said.
What’s Good and What’s Not
Ergen said that Dish Network has at least two disadvantages when it comes to starting a new wireless communications network. The company has no customers for such a service currently, and it is not as knowledgeable as people who’ve been in the business so far. “We have 13 million Dish customers,” he said. “The competition has 120 million customers.”
However, Ergen said, Dish Network has the advantage of starting a network from nothing. “By the time we are ready to launch, there will be no company more knowledgeable about IoT and 5G than this company,” Ergen said. “We may be successful at it, or we may not. But nobody will try harder, and we have dedicated people focused on the mission who are putting their heart and soul into it.”
One of the problems with 4G is the number of simultaneous connections possible under the 4G standard, which, according to Ergen, is 200 simultaneous connections on a network sector. He said that’s why when someone uses a 4G device in a stadium and sees plenty of bars indicating a good signal, the device nevertheless may not handshake the connection.
The 5G standard, which probably will be released in December 2019, Ergen said, will support something in the neighborhood of 1 million simultaneous connections in a square kilometer. To Ergen, that means that the standard is leaning toward narrowband IoT, although he said there may be something else that comes on later. He said that is why even though Dish Network’s first network will use 4G technology to meet the construction deadline, the company will build the network so that it can be upgraded to meet the 5G standard.
Ergen said work in progress on the 5G standard indicates signals potentially will propagate as far as 100 kilometers. “We’ll have to have a more densified network than that in cities, but it gives you great range,” he said. “It allows us to build a nationwide network initially, and then to build Phase Two on top of that. We don’t have enough uplink spectrum to support a broadband network, which we would love to do. So we’re playing the hand that’s dealt to us, and we’re going to learn a lot. We will have a network for anybody that has sensors. It will be an open network, so anyone who wants to connect sensors with a nationwide, narrowband IoT network will be able to do it.”
The return on investment for the narrowband IoT network will be lower, Ergen said, than it will be for the eventual 5G network. The 5G network will be able to affect every part of the economic chain in the United States, he said.
“There will be plenty of people who will want to connect to a narrowband IoT network, but the real use cases appear when you get into artificial intelligence, robotics and smart cities,” Ergen said. “When you achieve low latencies with 5G, you create a whole realm of industries that don’t exist today.”
The next Connectivity Expo is set for May 20–23, 2019, in Orlando, Florida.