GSMA Joins O-RAN Alliance to Open Up 5G Networks

Article By : John Walko

The O-RAN Alliance, driving the seemingly unstoppable shift to more openness in mobile infrastructure, is joining forces with the GSMA...

It seems obvious now that it has happened. The O-RAN Alliance, one of the main drivers of the seemingly unstoppable shift to more openness in mobile communications infrastructure, is joining forces with the bastion of the old guard in all things mobile – the GSMA.

The two groups say they will “work together to harmonize the open networking ecosystem and agree on an industry roadmap for network solutions, thereby making access networks as open and flexible as possible for new market entrants.”

The move is just the latest in a series of realignments and new entrants who want to participate in this promise of new alternatives to the established norms in the sector.

Some weeks ago, we saw the launch of the Open RAN Policy Coalition. Late last week, Nokia, one of the surprising no-shows in the original line-up, announced it would join — giving its Scandinavian arch-rival Ericsson a bit of a dilemma.

It is probably safe to assume that the clear leader in supplying infrastructure to mobile operators, Chinese group Huawei, will not be applying to join the US dominated Policy Coalition.

And a few months ago, after what were described as difficult negotiations, the O-RAN Alliance and the Facebook- inspired and led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), one of whose most significant projects targets developing open networking technologies, shook hands on a collaboration.

There are, clearly, positives in all this togetherness  for more communications infrastructure openness – not least avoiding fragmentation, and making it easier and quicker to develop the specifications  for the open interfaces that could, eventually, replace the existing ones.

By opening up the interfaces between different parts of the RAN, that technology would allow an operator to build its RAN using products from diverse vendors.  In current set-ups and networks based on 3GPP specifications, everything must come from the same supplier. This greatly favors the incumbents.

And there certainly are significant overlaps in the membership profiles of the organizations, and in many ways, common objectives.

Of course not all members of the long-established GSMA are fully on board with the entire openness agenda exemplified by the O-RAN Alliance.

One particular and hugely influential player, Ericsson, most likely but reluctantly went along with the collaboration between the organizations. We asked the GSMA to clarify its policy on how such collective decisions are taken and agreed, but at the time of writing, have not heard back.

The Swedish group has also decided not to join the Open RAN Policy Coalition. Asked whether it has plans to do so, Ericsson declined our invitation for an interview, but noted in an e-mail to EE Times the company “believes in open and fair competition. To stay ahead in the 5G race the U.S. and other governments should maintain its market-based approach through technology-agnostic policies. The focus of policy makers needs to be on speeding up 5G deployment through spectrum allocation and removing network deployment barriers.”

From the technical standpoint, the company noted: “We believe in openness and that product architecture needs to evolve to support open interfaces and a multitude of use cases in the future. For example, we are complementing our high-performing solutions with additional virtual radio access network solutions this year.”

The company also stressed: “The American ecosystem is critical for 5G, spanning all the way from silicon to applications and Ericsson are partnering with all the main players. Ericsson is committed to work with all relevant players and alliances in the industry to innovate at global scale for the benefit of the whole industry.”

The company’s reticence may have something to do with its good relations with Chinese telcos. For instance it recently won two major deals for its RAN gear at two of the big mobile network operators.

Conversely, Nokia has all but given up on the country’s radio access networks business, a huge reversal of fortunes when one considers that the Finnish group, just five to six years ago saw about 15% of its revenues coming from its Chinese operations.

The connection, of course, is that the Open RAN Policy Coalition is considered by many to be an ‘Un-Chinese Coalition’ acting as a kind of communications infrastructure front against Huawei.

The Chinese behemoth has, indeed, shown almost no interest in participating in the openness debate, and is stubbornly committed to technologies based on 3GPP specifications rather than the so-far unproven RAN alternatives.

O-RAN Alliance

To date, it has spurned the O-RAN Alliance — but it is an active member of the GSMA. We asked the Association whether all its members have signed up to the collaboration, but to date it has not responded.

It is important to note that huge as it is, Huawei is not the only large Chinese player in the global infrastructure business. ZTE is, for instance, fully participating in developing specs for the open RAN interfaces, and is a member of the O-RAN Alliance.

And there are many less well-known but innovative Chinese companies involved in the O-RAN Alliance, such as GreenTech, Inspur, Sunwave and Tongyu. Oh, and including major mobile operators, including China Mobile and China Telecom.

So it would be wrong to assume that the openness debate is just an anti-China phenomenon.

In fact, and perhaps ironically, it may be possible that the Open RAN concept could do more harm among the incumbents to the Scandinavian duo than Huawei.  Ericsson and Nokia are far more reliant on telecommunications infrastructure for total revenues than the much more diversified Huawei. Indeed, for Ericsson, it represents almost all its business, and only slightly less for the Finnish group.

There is a clear and present danger that this whole Open RAN debate is being sucked into the anti- Huawei debate, with global politics at the core.

And, finally, we need to add a premise here. While definitely an exciting  development that needs to be nurtured, it should be noted that , to date, the only operator to have deployed  a network based on the open –RAN principles is Japanese group Rakuten , with Dish in the US planning to do so, and both targeting the enterprise market.

Global operators such as Vodafone and Telefonica are, however, busy trialling the concept in different markets around the world.

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