OpenRAN lobby group forms in US with 31 founding members

A new lobby group has emerged in the US, known as the Open RAN Policy Coalition, with a mission to guide policy making and encourage the promotion of the OpenRAN movement.

OpenRAN is of course gathering momentum across numerous different segments of the telecoms industry, though it is still in its embryonic days. It will be years before OpenRAN can materially challenge the status quo in the network infrastructure ecosystem, but assistive government policy and a generous regulatory environment could certainly accelerate this roadmap.

“As evidenced by the current global pandemic, vendor choice and flexibility in next-generation network deployments are necessary from a security and performance standpoint,” said Diane Rinaldo, Executive Director of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, though we aren’t too sure how the two are related.

“By promoting policies that standardize and develop open interfaces, we can ensure interoperability and security across different players and potentially lower the barrier to entry for new innovators.”

As a technology set, OpenRAN disaggregates radio, hardware and software components of telecoms networks. The objective is to offer the opportunity for telcos to build networks through a modular design, selecting each component on its own merit as opposed to proprietary technologies which bundle everything together and potentially create vendor lock-in situations.

Theoretically, networks should be cheaper to deploy as there would be greater diversity in the supplier ecosystem with specialists emerging in each segment.

The purpose of this group is as most would expect; to influence government policy for OpenRAN technologies and to encourage enforced diversity in telecoms supply chains. The group will push for policies which are more overtly in support of open and interoperable wireless technologies, funding R&D, lower barriers for 5G deployment and use government procurement to support vendor diversity.

Much of what is being said is hardly different from the corporate and meaningless jargon which litters the industry thanks to the influence of PR agencies who have little more than surface knowledge, but some of the policy objectives are quite interesting:

  • Signal government support for open and interoperable solutions: Perhaps this is suggesting the group will push governments to pick a camp and actively promote open technologies
  • Use government procurement to support vendor diversity: Should the lobby be successful, maybe there will be regulatory requirements to incorporate open technologies into any network which receives public funds
  • Avoid heavy-handed or prescriptive solutions: Could these mean an end to proprietary technologies through legislation?

For some, this might seem like a worrying development (Ericsson, Nokia or Huawei are hardly going to be thrilled) but the move has been welcomed by others in the industry.

“The launch of the Open RAN Policy Coalition shows the momentum building behind a more competitive, innovative, technology ecosystem,” said Attilio Zani, Executive Director of the Telecom Infra Project.

“At the heart of TIP’s work is the development and deployment of open, disaggregated, standards-based solutions – that are developed in conjunction with the operators. This, together with a supportive policy environment that allows new technology to flourish, will create greater opportunities for new entrants and a more diverse supply chain that will ultimately transform the industry to deliver the high-quality connectivity that the world needs – now and in the decades to come.”

The emergence of a formal lobby group is another step towards the breakthrough of Open RAN technologies, though momentum is already gathering very quickly in the US.

In protest against China emerging as the powerhouse of the 5G era, the US Government has been quick to jump on the Open RAN bandwagon. This preference serves two purposes for the US Government; firstly, it dilutes the influence Chinese infrastructure vendors have on the industry, and secondly, it stimulates the creation of US infrastructure companies. There aren’t many US names in the RAN game currently.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced to Congress to provide up to $1 billion of federal funds to create Western-based alternatives to Chinese equipment providers Huawei and ZTE.

“Every month that the US does nothing, Huawei stands poised to become the cheapest, fastest, most ubiquitous global provider of 5G, while US and Western companies and workers lose out on market share and jobs,” said Senator Mark Warner, a particularly vocal critic of China.

“Widespread adoption of 5G technology has the potential to unleash sweeping effects for the future of internet-connected devices, individual data security, and national security. It is imperative that Congress address the complex security and competitiveness challenges that Chinese-directed telecommunication companies pose.”

OpenRAN technologies are not a market-ready alternative for traditional RAN equipment in most circumstances now, though there is swift progress being made. With the likes of Rakuten and Dish championing open networks, the status quo is beginning to shift, which will only be accelerated with political support. The formation of this lobby group to compound existing support in the US political aisles is a very interesting development.

Founding members of Open RAN Policy Coalition:

Airspan, Altiostar, AWS, AT&T, Cisco, CommScope, Dell, Dish Network, Facebook, Fujitsu, Google, IBM, Intel, Juniper Networks, Mavenir, Microsoft, NEC Corporation, NewEdge Signal Solutions, NTT, Oracle, Parallel Wireless, Qualcomm, Rakuten, Samsung Electronics America, Telefónica, US Ignite, Verizon, VMWare, Vodafone, World Wide Technology, and XCOM-Labs.

Telefónica consortium will launch 5G Open RAN trial this year

Spanish operator group Telefónica has announced the creation of a new consortium of companies aiming to accelerate Open RAN development.

Altiostar, Gigatera Communications, Intel, Supermicro and Xilinx are all mucking in to assist in the development and deployment of Open RAN in 4G and 5G. In announcing the new collective effort Telefónica said it will launch 4G and 5G Open RAN trials in UK, Germany, Spain and Brazil this year, which is refreshing optimistic considering the world has ground to a halt.

Here’s what the Telefónica announcement had to say about the specifics: “The collaboration focuses on the appropriate Distributed Units that implement part of the baseband radio functions using the FlexRAN software reference platform and Intel Xeon processor based servers, appropriate Remote Radio Units connected through open interfaces based on O-RAN fronthaul specification, and suitable software that manages the connectivity in an open Cloud RAN architecture.”

“Once again, Telefónica is leading the transformation towards having the best-in-class networks in our operations with our customers as key pillars,” said Enrique Blanco, Telefónica CTIO. “Open RAN is a fundamental piece for that purpose while widening the ecosystem.”

“Telefónica is known for its leading-edge network and has been championing open vRAN implementations to bring greater network service agility and flexibility,” said Pierre Kahhale, Altiostar VP of Field Operations. “By bringing together the best-of-breed innovation, Telefonica is looking to achieve this vision into their network. We look forward to supporting this transformation of Telefonica’s network.”

“Open RAN offers a way for service providers to enhance customer experiences and enable new revenue-generating applications,” said Dan Rodriguez GM of Intel’s Network Platforms Group.  “We are collaborating closely with Telefonica and the broader ecosystem, and also participating in initiatives like the O-RAN Alliance, to help accelerate innovation in the industry.”

And so on. The rest of the announcement was mostly about bigging up the benefits of O-RAN tech, such as cheapness, adaptability and playing nice with mobile edge computing. The most interesting bit was the ambition to get the ball rolling ASAP, however. O-RAN is very threatening to the business models of the big kit vendors as it opens them up to unprecedented competition. When asked about it they tend to counter that it’s nowhere near ready, but developments like this mean they might need to come up with some new spin soon.

Nokia cautions Senators on plans to control technology decisions

One Senate subcommittee is searching for the silver bullet to the network infrastructure conundrum, though Nokia and other industry figures have warned against politicians making procurement decisions.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has been hearing testimonies from various industry figures to examine the security and integrity challenges for telecommunications networks. The objective is to create regulation and legislation which benefits all, except the Chinese, and maintains security principles.

But in the pursuit of national security, some in the industry question whether the US Government is extending its influence too far into the business operations of the telcos. One concern which has been raised is if it would be a sensible decision to legislate what technologies the telcos have to use.

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Roger Wicker not only condemned Chinese vendors and the threat posed by China in the digital economy, but suggested Government should be playing a more active role in the development of standards and deployment of 5G. This is all well and good, until Government starts to make telco decisions for the telcos.

Below, we have taken a few extracts from the testimonies to demonstrate the concern from the telco industry.

Steve Berry, CEO, Competitive Carriers Association:

However, policymakers should not mandate which technologies are used in wireless networks, but instead should encourage research into new, secure technologies to enhance customer choice, innovation, and cost savings. For carriers with existing network infrastructure, additional research may facilitate increased ORAN deployment as well, and it is important that all network operators are positioned to manage additional steps for interoperability across multiple vendors.

Mike Murphy, CTO, Nokia Americas:

In short, there is limited maturity in both ORAN and Radio Access Network virtualization. For this reason, Nokia believes that putting these burdens on rural carriers, the least capable of being early adopters, would be unreasonable and should not be a pre-requisite for federal funding to replace their existing equipment, at this time.

James Lewis, Director of the Technology Policy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies:

The move to an open, modular approach to telecom will change supply chain dynamics in ways that favour the US (and Japan). The supply chain for telecom will depend on semiconductors, chipsets, and specialized software (including “open source” software), all areas where the U.S. has a substantial lead over China – in some cases there are no Chinese competitors. Estimates of how long this telecom transformation will take range from three years to a decade.

In an effort to combat the attractiveness of Huawei and ZTE technology to small and rural telcos, the US Government has created a Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund of at least $750 million and a Multilateral Telecommunications Security Fund of at least $500 million. Through these two financial packages, it is hoped viable and commercially feasible alternatives can be created.

As part of securing funding, there is some suggestion in official documents that implementing Open RAN technologies could be a pre-requisite. Encouraging the industry one direction is fine, but forcing telcos, and in this case the likelihood is small telcos, to adopt a technology which is not yet market ready is a potentially worrying path to take. This position has of course not been written into legislation or regulation, but the opportunity to do so is there.

While it is far from uncommon for Governments to want to shepherd the development of an industry, the level of intervention which is currently feared should not be considered healthy. Bureaucrats work in bureaucracies because they are good at bureaucracy. Engineers work engineering projects because they are good at engineering. The status quo seems perfectly acceptable so why should it change.

Sometimes Government should just be Government, and it should let private industry be private industry.

Parallel Wireless fights for Open RAN leadership with Peruvian win

Parallel Wireless is arguably carving out a leadership position in the increasingly popular Open RAN movement as it bags another contract in Peru.

The likes of Mavenir, NEC, Altiostar and Cisco are all vying for attention as the new infrastructure trend gathers steam, but it is Parallel Wireless who’s name keeps popping up all over the world. This week, the vendor has announced an agreement with Internet para Todos Perú (IpT Peru), a new telco owned by Telefonica, Facebook, IDB Invest and CAF.

“We have selected Parallel Wireless Open RAN to help us reduce our network deployment costs through disaggregation of hardware and software, RAN and core virtualization and network automation with real-time SON for deployments across Latin America and 5G readiness,” said Renan Ruiz, CTO of IpT.

“We are proud to have been selected for these deployments in Latin America to deliver quality wireless services to the end users and businesses through better communication and collaboration between ‘development’ and ‘operations’ groups by enabling the CI/CD based operating model,” said Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless. “The end goal is to help global MNOs build and release software at high velocity. without making extensive capital investments or incur ongoing maintenance cost associated with legacy network deployments.”

The new telco, IpT, is an effort by the four players to seek revenues in a market which has been notoriously difficult to find success. South America is another region where the digital divide is very evident, though with new technologies gaining maturity, connectivity is becoming more of a commercial reality.

While it may seem unusual to see Facebook associated with these projects, the social media giant has been the driving force behind the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), an organisation where the mission is to deliver the internet to all. Part of this mission is Open RAN, to decouple hardware from software in the network, helping to reduce deployment costs and improve maintenance.

When you tie all of these elements together, it means internet for more people. And internet for more people means more advertising opportunities for Facebook and its customers. As you can only serve so many ads to a single user without destroying the experience, Facebook has to introduce more services and attract more users to continue growth. It is attempting to do both, and Open RAN is proving to be an important component to ‘connect the next billion users’.

Irrelevant as to whether the ambitions of these projects are philanthropic or commercial, the end result is more people accessing the digital economy, which shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing. Open RAN is increasingly becoming a mature technology, and while it might not be ready for the more developed markets where telcos still rely on the resilience of the tried and tested traditional RAN, there is traction in the developing markets.

Looking around the world, Parallel Wireless does seem to be one of the more popular vendors in these embryonic test beds.

With Vodafone, Parallel Wireless has been drafted in to help run trials in the UK business and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is also one of the partners drafted in to help MTN deploy OpenRAN over 5,000 sites in 21 markets and was also recently named as the main partner for Etisalat to trial the technology across its markets in Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Mavenir, Cisco and NEC might be making a significant amount of noise in the press for OpenRAN, though Parallel Wireless seems to be making more waves with deals and active trials. It is always worth noting that not all deals and trials will be proclaimed from the treetops, on the evidence which is available to use Parallel Wireless has arguably taken an early leadership position.

TIP taps out its top achievements

The Facebook-founded Telecom Infra Project has offered an update on all the telecoms stuff it’s up to.

At the top of the list is its OpenRAN project, which promises to disrupt the industry by decoupling many of the component parts of radio access network gear, thus opening it up to greater competition. We’re told the rate of ORAN trials has significantly increased over the past year. On top of that another, related project focusing on disaggregated cell site gateways seems to be motoring along nicely too.

Rather ironically research into things like ORAN has become somewhat disaggregated itself, with other groups like the ORAN Alliance apparently working in parallel to the core TIP efforts, despite sharing most of the same members. Anyway, sensibly they have announced a ‘liaison agreement’, through which they promise not to hide stuff from each other in the area of interoperable 5G RAN solutions.

On top of that the GSMA has promised to muck in too and the OpenStack Foundation and the OpenAirInterface Software Alliance will explore collaboration areas on the newly formed Open Core Network Project Group. All this stuff is covered in a fairly comprehensive blog post by Attilio Zani, Executive Director at TIP​, which was clearly designed to coincide with MWC (RIP). The post includes the diagram below, which seeks to illustrate the scope of projects it’s involved in.

One of the major contributors to the ORAN effort, Mavenir, even had its own announcement designed to coincide with the TIP update. Mavenir has collaborated with Facebook Connectivity, MTI, Deutsche Telekom and others, to launch the Evenstar Remote Radio Head family. It’s intended to accelerate the adoption of ORAN tech by building general-purpose RAN reference designs for 4G and 5G networks.

“The Evenstar program is supported by a group of like-minded organizations that share a common goal of accelerating the adoption of Open RAN,” said Mikael Rylander, SVP and GM of the Radio Access Business Unit at Mavenir. “Through this collaboration, we hope to release RRHs with the latest features and competitive pricing. The Evenstar RRH and the program itself will help level the competition in both technical specification and price.”

“To benefit from next generation, open, disaggregated RAN solutions that can be implemented in various deployment scenarios for 4G and 5G networks, it is important for Deutsche Telekom to work with innovative partners driving ORAN compliant technology,” said Abdurazak Mudesir, SVP Technology Architecture & Innovation at Deutsche Telekom. “This collaboration between the ORAN and TIP communities is an important contribution to grow that ecosystem and accelerate the commercialization of Open RAN technology.”

While the development of novel technologies is usually a fragmented process in its initial stages, TIP and ORAN have been around for a few years now, so this increased collaboration seems overdue. While we still seem a long way from ORAN taking the place of any of the big RAN vendors in commercial networks, the rapid progress it seems to be making will surely be a cause of nervousness.

Etisalat goes big on OpenRAN with Parallel Wireless

Operator group Etisalat is trialing OpenRAN tech across its markets in Middle East, Asia and Africa in partnership with ORAN specialist Parallel Wireless.

One of the reasons for this sudden keenness on ORAN, which seeks to unbundle the components and software inside the radio access network with a view to making it cheaper and more flexible, is apparently the concept of ‘All G’. That refers the convergence of all generations of cellular technology onto a single software platform, which would both save cash and simplify network management.

“Today’s announcement is a global achievement setting a technological benchmark across our markets,” said Hatem Bamatraf, CTO of Etisalat International. “This is in line with our long-term strategy and vision of ‘Driving the Digital Future to empower societies’ that has translated to provide the best-in-class customer experience and deliver best value to our shareholders.

The global trials of OpenRAN with Parallel Wireless reiterate Etisalat’s commitment to our vision encouraging us to take the lead in OpenRAN by conducting field trials with various leading technology partners to create an innovative ecosystem in all of our markets. This is also the world’s first ‘All G’ OpenRAN set to provide efficiency and cost benefits for 4G and 5G in addition to setting a roadmap for the next generation of telecom networks.”

This looks like a significant win for Parallel, which is all-in on ORAN. Most of the telecoms industry (bar, maybe, the big RAN vendors) is keen on the concept of commoditising the RAN such that you can pick and choose your components and software. But we still seem to be some way from ORAN being able to support commercial mobile networks, so the key for companies like Parallel is to maintain momentum and interest while the technology evolves.

“As one of the leading communication providers in the emerging markets, Etisalat understands the true potential of greater leverage to their business, in both high end and low-end markets with a greater buying power by shaping the telecom ecosystem and embracing new network architectures, such as OpenRAN,” said Amrit Heer, Sales Director, MENA at Parallel Wireless.

“We are proud to have partnered with Etisalat for these engagements to deliver coverage and capacity without making extensive capital investments associated with legacy network deployments. We are proud to have been selected to support Etisalat in reimagining wireless infrastructure to be much lower cost ensuring access to innovative digital services in the region.”

ORAN is one to keep an eye on in the coming months and years. It represents a significant threat to the business models of the big RAN vendors, who sell ‘closed’ RAN solutions that require you to go all-in with them. At the very least the prospect of ORAN is a useful stick for operators to beat their vendor partners down on price with and we had expected it to be a major talking point at MWC 2020.

Etisalat launches Open vRAN network and promises more

Etisalat has said it has successfully launched what it describes as the first Open Virtual Radio Access Network (Open vRAN) in the Middle-East and Africa.

In collaboration with Altiostar, NEC and Cisco, amongst others, Etisalat has launched the network allowing it to incorporate commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware from third parties, in an attempt to reduce time to market and cost for its network deployment.

“Keeping in line with Etisalat’s strategy of ‘Driving the digital future to empower societies’, deploying the Open vRAN is vital in enabling digital transformation aimed at increasing efficiencies and the utilisation of AI,” said Saeed Al Zarouni, SVP, Mobile Network at Etisalat.

“Today’s announcement is aligned with UAE’s objectives of achieving digital transformation with the deployment of best-in-class technologies. Etisalat now plans to roll out Open vRAN across the UAE to take full advantage of all the benefits that this new technology offers.”

Etisalat currently uses Ericsson and Huawei as traditional suppliers, though these contracts could be diluted if the telco makes good on its promise to push Open vRAN throughout its network.

The purpose of Open vRAN is relatively straight forward. The initiative, first launched by Cisco at Mobile World Congress 2018, aims to build an open and modular architecture, General Purpose Processing Platforms (GPPP) and disaggregated software. It is a challenge to the network infrastructure status quo, with Open vRAN being billed as cheaper and more time-efficient thanks to the freedom to purchase equipment from wherever and whoever.

Although there are several high-profile initiatives currently gathering steam, Vodafone, MTN and Sprint are three examples, perhaps the most interesting is in Japan.

Over the course of the summer, Rakuten and NEC announced a partnership to deploy what was described as the world’s first 5G open vRAN architecture. Rakuten is in a very interesting position, as thanks to it being an entirely new MNO in the Japanese market, network deployment plans are not burdened by the heavy weight of legacy.

While few telcos have the same opportunity to develop a greenfield network in the same way as Rakuten, the Open vRAN ripples do appear to be gathering momentum.