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3 May 2022

Dish Network evaluates neutral host model at Duke University

Dish Network is moving forward with its private 5G strategy in the USA in a partnership with Duke University. This will seek to establish a campus network using a mixture of licensed and unlicensed 3.5 GHz spectrum, based on a neutral host model that will also admit rival MNOs – Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile USA.

The initial plan is to build a pilot network starting around July 2022 covering the university’s sprawling 8,600 acre (3,480 hectare) campus using a combination of licensed spectrum from Dish and adjacent unlicensed spectrum in the general authorized access (GAA) layer of the 3.5 GHz CBRS band.

In line with the neutral host concept, this project will integrate Duke University’s existing private network, based on Cisco’s private 5G-as-a-service platform, and an upgraded version of the national research and education network from Internet2, a not-for-profit networking consortium in the USA led by research and education institutions, as well as industry and government. It is Internet2’s first neutral host pilot using CBRS in collaboration with its industry and higher education members, after establishing the Future Wireless Working Group (FWWG) in March 2020 to bring together university CIOs with technology companies to address connectivity needs of higher education.

The pilot is also notable for promoting homegrown US 5G equipment makers supporting Open RAN specifications. Two such suppliers were chosen. One is JMA, whose XRAN software-defined wireless platform was launched in 2018 and is promoted as a scalable software path to 5G. The other RAN vendor is Airspan Networks, whose track record includes the ‘Magic Box’ small cell, which it designed for Sprint (now part of TMO); a huge deployment of small cells for Reliance Jio in India; as well as small and macrocells deployed in the Rakuten cloud-based network in Japan.

For Dish, the trial will help establish that CBRS spectrum, with its combination of licensed and unlicensed access, can underpin a scalable network serving multiple tenants under a neutral host model and provide consistent levels of service at high availability across the whole campus, rather than the patchier coverage of the existing WiFi network.

“The goal of this innovative neutral host proof of concept is to improve the quality of the connectivity across Duke’s campus through the use of a private CBRS-connected 5G network,” said Stephen Bye, chief commercial officer at Dish Wireless.

For Dish, the aim is partly also to provide that elusive all-round coverage indoors and out across a large campus. WiFi, the incumbent technology in enterprise, was slow to plug that gap but has been playing catch-up, with WiFi 6 and 6E, matching 4G and 5G Non-Standalone in many scenarios, without quite equalling the promise of 5G Standalone (SA) 5G for ultra-low latency or capacity.

There is also a security deficit with WiFi’s basic SSID, or network name, and password vulnerable to hacking, requiring additional proprietary measures for more robust protection.

But the main drawback is often consistent outdoor coverage, while for cellular the challenge has come indoors. That is why the neutral host model, allowing existing private infrastructure to be made available to cellular operators on a shared basis, comes into play here.

The neutral host model, then, allows cellular access points in private spectrum, such as CBRS in the USA, to be deployed over an existing enterprise LAN, offloading a carrier’s traffic automatically over a secure tunnel. Each MNO sharing the enterprise network in turn allows use of its own licensed spectrum for small cell access points.

In this way the enterprise stays in charge of its domain as a local operator, while the MNO still has full control of its cellular services, and the core IP multimedia subsystem (IMS). The key component enabling this connectivity split between the private 5G/LTE network and the public MNO domain is the Mobile Operator Core Network (MOCN) gateway, which tunnels traffic securely to and from the MNO core.

For a private network owner such as Duke, a key benefit apart from ubiquitous, secure and high-capacity connectivity around the campus, is the ability for its users to gain access from their own devices, irrespective of their MNO provider in principle.

“Every college and university has experienced dramatic increases in wireless needs from our mobile-first communities,” said Tracy Futhey, CIO of Duke University. “Rather than providing two separate infrastructures throughout our campuses – cellular and WiFi – the holy grail has always been for a single, common network delivering both cellular and high-speed private WiFi. The recent availability of CBRS, together with our collaboration with Internet2, Dish Wireless and Cisco, makes this vision a reality by delivering a private Duke wireless network over the carrier-grade cellular infrastructure that stretches throughout our campus.”

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen believes this model will sweep through not just universities, but also leading enterprises. “I’d be shocked if five years from now, the majority of the Fortune 500 companies didn’t have private networks,” he said recently.