EchoStar [NASDAQ: SATS] won a contract extension from the Department of Defense (DoD) for the continued deployment of standalone 5G networks at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH) in Hawaii and at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) in Washington state.

The contract extension builds on an award for NASWI in 2021 and additional expansion in Hawaii in 2022, extending both through 2025 with additional 5G enhancements. The company declined to comment on the value of the extensions.

Acting as systems integrator, Hughes in 2022 won an $18 million contract to build a 5G standalone network at the Whidbey Naval Air Station. That initial 5G deployment was feted with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on March 30, 2023, attended by EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen, who last week joined U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in the Philippines to talk about Dish’s experience with open RAN.

The deployment on Whidbey Island was the first 5G open Radio Access Network (RAN) at a U.S. DoD base, according to Rajeev Gopal, vice president of Advanced Programs at Hughes, which is a subsidiary of EchoStar.

Vendors include Cisco, Dell Technologies, JMA Wireless, Intel and Boingo Wireless.

They’re using a combination of 600 MHz and CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum to deliver on both coverage and capacity. The CBRS spectrum is especially key when they’re getting closer to and inside hangars, he said. Of course, the Navy uses 3.5 GHz for its own operations and it has priority, but Dish also has CBRS Priority Access Licenses (PALs) and can use General Authorized Access (GAA) CBRS spectrum.

EchoStar also recently won a $50 million National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) grant to build an ORAN test center at Dish’s Cheyenne, Wyoming, campus.

Double whammy: Satellite + terrestrial

Typically, the competition for these types of government contracts is fierce. But despite its bleak-looking financial picture, EchoStar has a unique combination of assets. It’s got the terrestrial 5G network – built via Dish’s spectrum – and the satellite component.

“I think we happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Gopal said. “We have a strong portfolio of spectrum, satellites – all of the technology so that we can cover both local area and long-distance combinations.” From the Hughes side of the business, they also have a dedicated defense group with requisite security clearances.

Open RAN, of which Ergen was an early supporter, enables more competition for U.S.-based companies, and the U.S. government has been increasingly stressing its importance via policy documents and grants. Last month, the Biden Administration announced a fourth, $42 million round of funding to drive the development of open and interoperable equipment.

“I’m very happy to see open RAN becoming an integral part of these architectures and these programs,” Gopal said. “We happen to be a company of the right size” with the right set of technologies.

For the DoD, a lot of use cases simply can’t happen with older technology, Gopal said. Having both terrestrial and satellite components provides another layer of resiliency if something goes wrong.

What gives EchoStar an advantage is its global 2 GHz S-band spectrum. It views its position, with the gigantic Jupiter 3 satellite launch on the GEO front and its partnership with OneWeb’s LEO constellation, as ideal.

With direct-to-device (D2D) being all the rage these days, combining satellite coverage with terrestrial is right up EchoStar’s alley. “We are very much in the middle of that arena,” he said.

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