The story of Dish’s and Rakuten’s journey as greenfield mobile network operators (MNOs) has allure for analysts who cover telco and cloud infrastructure. At AvidThink we sift through executive interviews and news that reveal decisions across network design, vendor selection, software development and operations to understand MNO strategies better. We can then project the resultant impact on capex, opex and other metrics. And yet, as we learned with Dish, understanding the philosophy and principles behind these decisions can be more revealing than the decisions.

The Dish vendor smörgåsbord

Dish Wireless’s recent groundbreaking infrastructure move was its partnership with AWS and reliance on AWS’s cloud and hybrid infrastructure for a large part of its 5G MNO infrastructure. Dish also indicates ongoing vendor relationships with Dell, VMware, IBM for infrastructure and orchestration, Spirent for assurance, along with naming many more vendors for OSS, BSS, RAN, core, and security functions.

Meanwhile, when we at AvidThink engage with different Dish vendors, we hear varying stories, each with the vendor playing the starring role. We, therefore, reached out to Marc Rouanne, chief network officer at Dish Wireless, who was kind enough to paint a more holistic picture.

He quickly pointed out that his vendor partners each have unique expertise and value propositions. For instance, on the infrastructure side:

  • AWS as the cloud platform that came up on top during their initial evaluation
  • Cisco for its end-to-end networking expertise
  • Dell for cost-efficient, diverse server platforms
  • VMware for management of VMs and Virtual Network Functions (VNFs)

And the list goes on (IBM, Nokia, Mavenir, Rakuten/Altiostar, etc.). As we talked more, I realized I was asking the wrong question.

While it’s vital to understand Dish’s current set of vendors and the roles they play because that influences the capabilities of Dish’s network, Rouanne and his team look at their infrastructure decisions from a different vantage point.

Core principles

Instead of asking about the vendors, a more insightful question would have been: what is the set of core principles the Dish Wireless team uses to make infrastructure decisions? Based on material from conversations with his team at AWS re:Invent (thanks to the AWS telco team for facilitating) and prior discussion, I deduced these core Dish Wireless principles:

  1. Cultivate a Cloud and DevOps mindset
  2. Treat the platform as necessary but secondary
  3. Adopt a capital and asset-light investment model
  4. Develop and own the pipeline, model, schema, workflow
  5. Bake in assurance, including reliability, quality-of-service (QoS), and security, and actively manage quality-of-experience (QoE)

Note: this is my interpretation of Rouanne and his team’s principles.

I’ll describe each concisely.

Principle 1 — Cloud and devops mindset

A cloud-centric mindset is core to how Rouanne evaluates his vendors and drives his processes. He intends to put everything that can be hosted in the cloud, in the cloud — “cloud as default.” His team recognizes that not all functions belong in the cloud (e.g., open RAN RUs, or user-plane functions/UPFs at the edge) and accepts they will need vendors that support the diversity of functions at the edge.

Principle 2 — Platform is secondary

While buying into cloud platforms, Rouanne views Kubernetes and virtualization platforms as commodities and interchangeable. He and his team have adopted containers and are invested in a cloud-native network functions (CNF) future. Meanwhile, they tolerate VNFs as they transition. However, whether the underlying container platform is EKS (AWS), GKE (Google), AKS (Azure), or VMware Tanzu is less relevant.

Principle 3 — Adopt an asset-light model

The Dish team’s cloud-first strategy underpins its use of AWS Outposts, Local Zones and Regions to run different parts of the RAN and mobile core. Associated with this is a desire to remain capital and asset-light, leveraging and leaning on partners. Dish doesn’t have physical labs filled with diverse telco equipment that it owns, outfits and runs. Instead, it leverages the cloud and virtual labs at partners like Dell and Mavenir. Dish also leverages its production network as a controlled test environment by appropriately managing resources — think staggered and controlled rollouts, canary testing, blue-green deployment strategies typical of cloud applications.

Principle 4 — Own the pipeline
From the above three principles, if Dish is leveraging vendors for its underlying infrastructure, network functions, orchestration and management and assurance, what unique value does Dish bring to the table?

Rouanne believes their value is creating and owning the development, deployment, assurance pipeline, and workflow that goes with it. The magic for Dish is encoded in its pipeline, workflow, schemas and models. They capture how Dish will manage all the different components that come together to instantiate that service.

Dish’s value is therefore abstracted from the underlying platform, allowing it to swap between vendors if needed. It also maintains agility as new vendors or platforms become available. Similarly, above this pipeline, the company can offer flexible APIs and abstraction layers to its enterprise customers who can define and consume new services without concern for how Dish implements the underlying capabilities.

Principle 5 — Elevate user experience through assurance

Dish also ensures that the pipeline and resulting service are working correctly — having an assurance framework. This framework covers the quality-of-service, user experience, and regulatory compliance and security elements. Having ongoing and automated assurance accelerates the development of new services while holding vendors accountable. With new enterprise services, Dish’s assurance framework and the corresponding enabling infrastructure can be offered to their vendor-partners as virtual labs to validate new services. This enables faster time to market for joint Dish-vendor offerings while ensuring a high quality of experience.

AvidThink’s observations on Dish’s approach

Many of the elements in my conversations with Rouanne reminded me of discussions with Tareq Amin of Symphony/Rakuten Mobile. The cloud, agile and devops approaches are a common thread. Collectively, the telco world understands the importance of going through a cultural and process transformation that aligns them better with cloud principles. The telco ecosystem understood this when we embarked on the NFV journey a decade ago, yet we continue to struggle as an industry.

The efforts of Dish (and Rakuten) are sometimes discounted because they are viewed as greenfield special cases. However, we would like to acknowledge that as pioneers, there are costs in tilling new ground and pulling arrows from their backs. However, as they move quickly along the learning curve, the principles they’re baking into their organizational culture and processes will pay future dividends.

Nevertheless, from our work with existing carriers and infrastructure vendors, our analysis and assessment are that the most challenging move is a mindset shift to cloud, devops and CI/CD pipelines. Once that shift occurs, while there are switching costs between clouds and other virtualization platforms, that cost is much lower than the initial cloud transition. This is in line with Rouanne’s view that the underlying platform is interchangeable.

AvidThink concurs that processes contain strategic value. A classic HBR article from 1996 by Michael Porter “What is Strategy?” argues that successful strategy involves choosing a unique and valuable position supported by systems of activities that are hard for competitors to match. In a world dominated by automation pipelines, validated by assurance workflows, assisted by AI/ML for optimization and continual adjustment, we posit that these pipelines, schemas, workflows represent the proprietary systems of activities that bring competitiveness and enduring value to an organization.

Eating the pudding

Dish has embarked on its journey, but it must deliver a production network that can scale, demonstrate improved Capex and Opex, and innovate on services faster than its competition. It has to acquire subscribers and win over enterprises. While the proof of the Dish strategy pudding will be in its eating, AvidThink’s assessment is that they’ve started with a solid list of principle ingredients.

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