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.

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.

Rakuten Mobile unveils disruptive tariff to shake up Japanese market

Ahead of a hard launch next month, new Japanese MNO Rakuten has announced an ‘unlimited’ tariff that massively undercuts the incumbents.

The ‘Rakuten UN-LIMIT’ tariff seems to borrow its marketing from T-Mobile US, but its core inspiration from Reliance Jio. Not only does it come in at 2,980 Yen per month, apparently less than half of what’s currently on offer, but Rakuten is also offering the first year of service for free to the first three million punters who sign up.

“For around two years, the Rakuten Group and Rakuten Mobile have been building a new network unlike anything the world has ever seen,” said Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani (pictured). “Everyone at Rakuten is working together to democratize the mobile industry. Rakuten will become the only major carrier in the world to offer a single pricing plan. Currently, we aren’t looking to launch any other plans.”

The unlimited side of things does come with a few caveats, however. You can see the full tariff table below, with its various qualifiers. A key thing for prospective Japanese punters to bear in mind is that as soon as they’re out of range of a Rakuten base station a 2 GB per month limit kicks in and data speeds are significantly throttled.

*1 Unlimited when connected to Rakuten Mobile’s base stations. Subscribers can confirm which area the data they are using is from via the My Rakuten Mobile home screen.
*2 If data usage in the partner area (domestic) exceeds the data allocation, data speeds in the partner area (domestic) will be limited to a maximum of 128kbps. Unused data will not be carried over to the next month.
*3 The partner area (overseas) refers to the 66 countries and regions where international roaming (data) can be used. If data usage in the partner area (overseas) exceeds the data allocation, data speeds in the partner area (overseas) will be limited to a maximum of 128kbps. Unused data will not be carried over to the next month. Usage from outside the 66 countries and regions will incur charges depending on the country/region.
*4 Additional data purchased can be used for 31 days. Additional data for partner areas in Japan and overseas must be purchased separately.
*5 Please check “2. Voice calling and SMS fees” below.
*6 From overseas, standard calls cannot be made or received, and standard SMS cannot be sent or received.

The party line is that Rakuten can offer all this lovely cheapness because its network, which it built from scratch, is just so damn efficient. “We are extremely delighted with what we have accomplished in Japan,” said Rakuten CTO Tareq Amin. “We have deployed the world’s first Open RAN platform, not because the phrase ‘Open RAN’ sounds like good technology, but because there are cost reductions that we feel an obligation to pass on to consumers in Japan.

“We are one of the only telecommunications networks that can claim to have standardized, 100% open interfaces, and full control of our software and network framework. This is something that we are so extremely proud of. Thank you to all of the employees and partners that made this vision.”

Right now Rakuten seems to only be covering a few major cities in Japan. While it has aggressive roll-out targets, subscribers outside of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka may be disappointed by how infrequently their connections are either free or unlimited. But this aggressive positioning is still bound to win over a lot of Japanese punters and put heavy price pressure on the incumbent MNOs.

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.

Open-minded RAN key to 5G success

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless, makes the case in support of the OpenRAN initiative.

Years of consolidation have left the telecoms industry with three Radio Access Network (RAN) technology giants: Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. But, these players risk becoming obsolete as the telecoms industry starts demanding networks that are open and flexible.

The RAN is a significant expense for mobile operators, in what is already a capital-intensive industry. Legacy RAN networks, built using the technology of the major vendors, is typically hardware centric and designed in silos for each generation (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G) of connectivity. The technology is ‘closed’ by its nature, which means that it is incompatible with other vendors. Subsequently, networks have been very difficult to adapt and upgrade, with the hardware giants dictating the timings and cost of any maintenance and installation.

As we move towards the introduction of 5G, the industry is now beginning to realise that the economics of building the RAN need to change. 2019 saw significant moves towards OpenRAN, a new model of building radio networks, based on a software-centric and open infrastructure. The benefits of OpenRAN were illustrated by Vodafone’s announcement that it would be opening its entire RAN in Europe to OpenRAN vendors during TIP Summit in November. Both the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are leading the industry towards OpenRAN, with the O-RAN alliance driving industry standards, and TIP driving deployments.

Understanding the value of OpenRAN

The OpenRAN approach is achieved by separating hardware and software in the network. This helps networks support open interfaces and common development standards, to deliver multi-vendor, interoperable networks. This gives operators the flexibility to cost-effectively deploy and upgrade their networks, reduce complexity, and deliver coverage at a much lower cost. OpenRAN also makes it easier for network to support dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which allows LTE and 5G New Radio technology transmission at the same time. DSS is key to the early adoption of 5G smartphones, which will rely on both 5G and LTE transmission.

Analysts’ projections from ReTHINK show that the costs of building 5G Macro-cell networks will fall by 50% if deployments incorporate open architectures. This saving equates to hundreds of millions of dollars in the overall total cost of ownership, and will help mobile operators extend investments and become more profitable.

In developed markets, 5G roll-out is in full swing and operators are spending considerable amounts building out their next generation networks and marketing them to the public. However, current connectivity standards cannot be neglected, and operators need a new, software-based approach that will allow them to deploy and run 5G technology efficiently alongside their 3G an 4G networks. This is why OpenRAN is so appealing to operators such as Vodafone, as it enables to manage all connectivity standards using a software interface.

Meanwhile, operators in developing markets are currently focussed on scaling 2G, 3G and 4G to rural and urban areas that don’t have internet. But developing markets have a low average revenue per user, so operators in these markets won’t survive with the approach of building and managing siloed networks for each network generation, as CAPEX and OPEX will skyrocket.

Internet para Todos (IpT), a wholesale operator owned by Telefonica, Facebook, and Latin American banks IDB Invest and CAF Bank is also driving momentum. It recently opened talks to bring a second operator on board, after connecting more than 650 sites and covering 800,000 people (450,000 actual customers) with a 4G rollout in rural Peru. Meanwhile, MTN, the South Africa based operator, recently announced that it is deploying OpenRAN technology in 5,000 sites as it looks to unify its 2G, 3G and 4G networks, to save costs for itself and its customers.

The OpenRAN initiative takes off

In 2020, the momentum behind OpenRAN will continue to grow as other operators realise how they can reduce costs, drive more competition between technology vendors, and stimulate higher levels of innovation in the industry.

OpenRAN clearly has the support from major players in the industry, however, it is vital that operators consider the most effective technology partner to enable the OpenRAN vision. OpenRAN must address all generations of mobile connectivity standards together – 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. If MNOs decide to only introduce OpenRAN for 4G and 5G, they will still be faced with managing separate legacy and new networks, which contradicts the aims of the initiative.

Being able to support all generations of mobile connectivity under the same OpenRAN software umbrella is crucial to providing reliable connectivity for all and allowing the transformative benefits of 5G to be realised. The industry is hungry for change, and open-minded operators are the ones which will succeed. That might mean the traditional ‘big 3’, don’t stay the big 3 for long!

 

Steve has worked in the technology industry for over 20 years and is the founder and CEO of Parallel Wireless. Previously, as founder and CEO of Endeca, he built the business ultimately leading to Oracle acquiring the company. He was part of the team creating Akamai that developed global Internet content distribution – now carrying peaks of 15 terabits/s of web traffic on any given day – and led the team at Inktomi that reimagined the network cache to create carrier class caching. Steve also previously worked with AT&T Teradata. He has a BS from Princeton University and MBA from Harvard Business School.