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Dish’s Charlie Ergen Describes the 5G Environment That Is Coming

Randy Sukow

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Dish’s Charlie Ergen Describes the 5G Environment That Is Coming

The mobile communications market will soon have four national competitors. Dish Network later this year will gradually begin stepping into the vacancy created when Sprint merged with T-Mobile. It will use a vast store of middle band spectrum it has amassed through auctions and other means over several years. But Dish founder and Chairman Charlie Ergen says that it will be a mobile competitor like none before it.

Dish Wireless will be 5G from the beginning and will operate with open architecture in the cloud, Ergen said during an NRTC-sponsored event during the recent CFC Summer Summit in San Antonio, TX. NRTC CEO Tim Bryan, a long-time friend and colleague, interviewed Ergen on the coming mobile network and other current communications technology issues.

“We virtualized the network and do a lot with software … When you go home tonight, you’ll see a cell tower and below it you’ll probably see a shed. In that shed there’s a bunch of boxes; big servers eating up a lot of power,” he said. “We do a lot of that with software. At the base of our towers there’s a 4’ by 6’ cabinet.” Less power consumption means more efficient network operation.

NRTC CEO Tim Bryan talks with DISH Network founder Charlie Ergen.
NRTC CEO Tim Bryan talks with Dish Network founder Charlie Ergen.

The network also will take advantage of cloud computing. “The best example I can give you is, we’re building Netflix in a Blockbuster world,” Ergen said. Blockbuster was the nation’s leading DVD rental chain with more than 50,000 employees before Netflix and other streaming video services made rentals of physical recordings obsolete.  

In comparison, today’s mobile networks rely on transferring signals through thousands of towers. “We still have towers, but we put most of the processing in the cloud. All Netflix did was take all that video from Blockbuster and stick it in the cloud,” he said. “Netflix now is a huge company because the cloud allowed them to be more automated, have less op ex, and give customers features they couldn’t otherwise get, and that’s what we’re going to be able to do.”

In addition, Dish will use open network architecture in its infrastructure. Other networks tend to rely on proprietary technology from a single vendor, such as Nokia or Ericsson. Dish will be able to mix equipment from different vendors to increase efficiency and lower costs.

The most common question among Summer Summit attendees was about the future of the SpaceX Starlink internet service using low-Earth orbiting satellites. SpaceX currently is in the trial phase of the high-speed, low-latency service heading for a formal launch later this year. Ergen, having built Dish with satellite TV service, had some thoughts.

“We have tested one unit and it works well … pretty well,” Ergen said. “It’s real technology. It’s creative. I think it’s an advancement.” However, he said that it will have limited capacity and will not supply all rural America. He also questioned the FCC’s decision to allow SpaceX to collect funding for Starlink through the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF). But the service will have its place and he praised SpaceX for “moving the technology forward.”

Bryan, who has been a Starlink trial user, said “the downlink is good, the uplink is intermittent. I think the biggest issue is that they don’t have the satellite-to-satellite handover quite figured out.” That severely affects the system’s ability to deliver voice calls and support online gaming, he said.

In summary, Ergen was glad for the opportunity to meet with rural communications providers. “I was excited because I wanted to come to learn a bit more about some of your businesses,” he said. “If you look at your companies, what is it that you have strengths in? You’re local. You’ve got fiber. You’ve got financing. You’ve got transmitters and poles and customer relationships. That’s a hell of an advantage in rural America.”

A recording of the NRTC/Ergen Summer Summit session is available to CFC members on its web site.

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