Dish network chief talks 5G service-based architecture

Dish Network is working to build out a standalone 5G network, and network chief Marc Rouanne is zeroed in on the service-based architecture possible with a purely 5G core.

“Service-based architectures have been around in the IT world and the cloud world for a long time, but not in the telco,” Rouanne said in an interview with Fierce.

The power of service-based architecture has to do with software and the flexibility in how it’s added, delivered and consumed. Rouanne pointed to Amazon Web Services (AWS) as a typical example.

“They expose their services and anyone can consume, whereas in classic telco, everything is preconfigured and there is no flexibility the way you consume the software,” he noted.

Dish is betting big on the cloud in a partnership with AWS as its preferred cloud provider hosting its network. Vendors supplying components for the cloud-native standalone 5G core include Nokia, Mavenir, and most recently Oracle for control plane network functions.

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Dish will onboard network functions (NFs) sourced from Oracle on top of Kubernetes inside of AWS cloud. In the beginning the focus is onboarding to AWS, but over time Dish’s network architecture allows it to spin off certain functions where they want, he said. VMware is another Dish vendor it can use for different scenarios – for example, in a private cloud where an enterprise could decide to manage and control part of the software. 

Most of the network functions Dish selected from Oracle are what Rouanne called “pure 5G,” or non-existent in a 4G world, and help enable the service-based architecture (or SBA) that’s key to the network vision. Service-based architecture for 5G is defined by 3GPP standards.

For Dish it means new software can be plugged in very quickly and services consumed for new applications that may not exist yet.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Rouanne said. “4G, 3G, 2G, were all thought out, they were a finished product. With service-based architecture you have unlimited capability for the future because you can stitch, automatically, new applications whenever people have ideas.”

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A second benefit of SBA is that Dish can create new business models through the ability to consume software on-demand, scaling up or down depending on user needs.

For example, he pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic, where the need for video conferencing increased as a way for people to connect. But if demand for that capability decreases as routines go back to normal, Dish could scale down and use capacity elsewhere for newer services that might pop up.

Comparatively, in a classic operator scenario, he said one would buy a certain amount of software capacity to support however many subscribers “and that’s it.”

New architecture, new acronyms

New acronyms come alongside service-based architecture – including what Oracle brings to the table, with its Network Repository Function (NRF) and Network Exposure Function (NEF) – which again Rouanne said are only possible with standalone 5G.

Most operators come with legacy networks and so far have deployed 5G in non-standalone (NSA) mode, which still relies on LTE in the core network.

NRF is essentially a common place for all of the network functions to sit – i.e., a repository or directory – but something that 4G networks and NSA 5G networks in the U.S. don’t have, he noted. NEF is where services are exposed, meaning others can see and then use or tap into those for new or different applications.

Rouanne likened service-based architecture to a city of sorts, where the landscape and inhabitants aren’t static. New people move in and buy or build new homes.

“It’s not rigid, you bring a new function – everybody sees it, they can consume, it's very agile” he said.

So why is this important to Dish’s network ambitions? Dish wants to serve enterprise customers but may not know what exactly they’ll need down the line. 

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With a service-based architecture, enterprises explain a new application they want and Dish or its partners can invent new functions  that are then easily added to the network, Rouanne said.

And after months of testing Dish is confident using Oracle interconnected with Nokia and Mavenir. Fully standardized interfaces enabled functions to “talk to each other right away.”

Las Vegas is slated as the first Dish 5G market, with the network expected to go live in Q3. Testing out the mechanisms and exposing network functions to the market is part of the plan. And as Dish is the first in the U.S. to take this approach, Rouanne said doing so to get feedback from enterprise customers and others is important.

Dish will start using 5G network functions enabling SBA from the get-go, though the number of new additional software functions connected to the network initially will be limited to roughly dozens.

“But over time it’s going to expand fast and we’ll allow a lot of people to come and start trying,” he said.