Dish gets 5G network slicing lift from IBM

Last week, Dish Network said its Project Genesis 5G service was live in more than 120 U.S. cities after its earlier debut in Las Vegas. While the retail launch didn’t exactly go without a hitch – as The Verge chronicled – it marked a first for a U.S. operator in a lot of ways, including the first greenfield deployment of this size using open Radio Access Network (RAN) gear.

Dish announced last September that it was using IBM’s AI-powered automation and network orchestration software and services for its 5G network deployment. IBM's Global Telecom Industry VP Craig Wilson and senior partner Eric Riddleberger talked with Fierce last week about IBM’s work with Dish and where they’re headed in the not-too-distant future.

IBM’s orchestration engine is responsible for setting up, managing, configuring and launching network slicing, which is one of the oft-cited attributes of a standalone (SA) 5G network like Dish is building. Dish’s current network doesn’t yet offer slicing, but the expectation is that will be ready for commercial availability by the second half of this year, according to the IBM executives.

In a statement provided to Fierce, Dish said its 5G standalone network already has native support for network slicing. However, “we are not making any announcements at this time about any specific products or services.”

Slicing & dicing

IBM is working with a number of operators around the world on network slicing, and it’s very early days, Wilson said. “There are a lot of lessons learned and it’s been a great opportunity to prove out how to design for it and then actually how to implement it and scale it” for the second half of the year, he said.

Network slicing can play out in a number of ways. Dish has described it as a way for customers to set service levels for each device appropriate to their use of the network. For example, an autonomous vehicle could be supported by very low latency while an HD video camera can be allocated high bandwidth. 

Other examples are a network operator could give a slice to an MVNO and let that brand offer retail services to its own customers. Or an enterprise could acquire a slice that they could then use to provide wireless service to their employees around the country.

There’s also the ability to create a slice that is a digital twin of a production slice and dynamically test, in a production environment, new features and functionalities. “So you don’t have a test lab,” where everything is controlled. “You have a digital twin slice, and that is used to test out in real time, under real circumstances, new network functions, new capabilities, et cetera,” Riddleberger explained.

One thing that’s been nice about working with Dish is “they’ve stayed true to their architectural vision and principles,” Riddleberger said. “Rather than make shortcuts that they might have to undo later, they’ve said, ‘we’re going to work this in a collaborative model,’” making each individual element work and then make everything work together. That’s both an advantage in how Dish works as well as a challenge.

Dish Wireless Network Technology VP Sidd Chenumolu penned a blog outlining Dish’s 14 cloud-native  principles, listing what Dish expects of its cloud-native functions (CNFs), all designed to enable Dish to “innovate at the speed of cloud” and support new and emerging markets.

“The challenge has been, when you’ve got all of these various members of the ecosystem working together to build and do something that hasn’t been done before, it’s taken a lot of patience, a lot of hard work and a lot of creativity on the part of everyone,” Riddleberger said.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen mentioned during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call in February that Dish ultimately had to become a systems integrator (SI), and he commented during the earnings call in May that Dish continues to be the core integrator. Dish Chief Commercial Officer Stephen Bye acknowledged that the open ecosystem by definition allows Dish to be the systems integrator and bring in vendors that fit within its ecosystem.

Asked about IBM’s role, Riddleberger acknowledged that IBM is not the master integrator for the 5G network.

However, “we play a critical SI role with the orchestration platform with Dish and the other technology providers, as the orchestrator integrates with all the elements of the network,” he said. “IBM is the Systems Integrator for the 5G Network Business Support Systems,” which are the systems that allow Dish customers to find service, order it, use it and pay for it. “IBM is working collaboratively with Dish to ensure we deliver the right skills and technology as Dish’s needs and requirements continue to evolve.” 

For the industry as a whole, wireless engineers are learning a lot about cloud-native network functions while traditional software or IT people are learning about what’s expected of a network, such as five 9s availability and how to restore service within the expected time frame. “There’s a real merging of both cultures,” as well as vocabularies and capabilities in the field, Riddleberger said.