It began with the T-Mobile acquisition of Sprint which closed on April 1, 2020. As part of the deal, DISH Network purchased Sprint’s 800MHz spectrum, Sprint’s Boost Mobile prepaid business and access to T-Mobile’s network as it builds out its own network in becoming the fourth US carrier.
The idea that DISH could somehow become a viable and competitive fourth mobile network operator seemed far fetched. While DISH now has a competitive spectrum portfolio which includes their purchase of 5,492 PALs (Priority Access Licenses) at the recent 3.5 GHz CBRS (Citizen Band Radio Systems) auction, building a national mobile network is no trivial endeavor.
In February of 2019 at Mobile World Congress, Rakuten, Japan’s e-commerce giant, announced that it would be launching Rakuten Mobile. Its goal was to become the fourth national mobile wireless carrier in the highly competitive Japanese market. On April 10, 2019, Rakuten acquired an allotment of midband and mmWave spectrum and aspired to roll out the world’s first cloud-native, fully virtualized mobile network. Just a year later, it did just that by launching its LTE services in Tokyo. A few short months later, Rakuten launched its 5G network in October of 2020.
Since its LTE network went live, Rakuten Mobile has become a global poster child for the open RAN movement marshalled by the O-RAN Alliance and its members who seek to diversify the telecom vendor landscape. Rakuten’s initial network rollout and subsequent 5G launch proved that open standard based networks running on top of off-the-shelf hardware were technically possible and commercially viable. Moreover, these networks could be fully virtualized, architected and operated in a cloud-native fashion at scale.
Following Rakuten’s lead, DISH recently announced that it was going to be partnering with Intel to lay the foundation for their cloud native mobile network. Intel will be collaborating closely with DISH as well as advising them as they architect their mobile network providing reference designs for radios, front haul optimization and blueprints for servers.
DISH will also be engaging a number of OEM partners that will supply Intel-based RAN hardware for their mobile network infrastructure. Some of these OEMs as well as software firms coincidentally are some of the very same partner companies that are part of the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) ecosystem.
DISH’s mobile network will be largely if not entirely be based on Intel’s integrated stack of 5G network infrastructure offerings that include the latest generation of Xeon Scalable processors and Ethernet 800 Series network controllers. Intel recently expanded their 5G infrastructure portfolio with the introduction of vRAN Dedicated Accelerator based on eASIC technology which will offload and accelerate various compute-intensive networking processes. According to Intel, their new RAN hardware accelerator will free up processing power within the Xeon processor for increased channel capacity and support for edge-based applications.
DISH will stitch their virtualized network infrastructure together using Intel’s FlexRAN reference architecture that includes a software framework and tools for O-RAN compliant vRAN solutions. FlexRAN positions Intel very well to deliver x86 based RAN platforms that will be the core of a new breed of mobile networks based on their silicon.
For Intel, their partnerships with Rakuten and DISH represent pioneering forays into the emerging open RAN market. Intel is helping DISH and Rakuten prove that the nascent open RAN ecosystem can deliver economically scalable networks. If DISH is successful, they will not only become the first US carrier with a fully virtualized and cloud-native network, they will have put another feather in the O-RAN Alliance’s cap as a viable challenger to the big three: Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.
With over a decade of experience in hardware acceleration in the telecommunications industry, Intel appears to have a comfortable lead in the O-RAN race in the 5G era. It isn’t a coincidence that Nvidia is hard pressed to acquire Arm and AMD recently announced that they would acquire FPGA powerhouse Xilinx. Beyond the cloud data center, it's all about the 5G edge. In order to play, you need to come to market with a proven solution, the architecture and the technology stack.
Leonard Lee is the founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on Information and Communication industry and technology research. He has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/leonard-lee-nextcurve
“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.