New Open RAN Group Brings Uncertainty for Telcos

Article By : John Walko, Brian Santo

How many industry groups does it take to push 'open' radio access network into the telecom infrastructure?

A ‘Who’s Who’ of America’s communications infrastructure vendors, software groups and mobile operators have formed the Open RAN Policy Coalition. It’s not clear why the world needs yet another organization dedicated to the concept of open radio access networks (RANs), however. The answer might be in the new Coalition’s attributes that make it appear as if it has more to do with politics than it does with business or technology.

In fact, what it appears to be is a vehicle for curtailing the business opportunities of Huawei and other Chinese companies such as ZTE.

The stated rationale for the Open RAN Policy Coalition, however, is to “advance the adoption of open and interoperable solutions in the Radio Access Network (RAN) as a means to create innovation, spur competition and expand the supply chain” for the next generation of mobile networks, including 5G.

Does anyone need the Open RAN Policy Coalition for that? No. The new Coalition’s goals are duplicative of existing industry efforts.

The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) was founded by Facebook in 2016; TIP has a program called OpenRAN. And then there is the O-RAN Alliance, which was formed in 2018, when the C-RAN Alliance and the xRAN Forum decided to merge, in part because they were doing many of the same things. And now TIP OpenRAN and the O-RAN Alliance have so much overlap they recently signed a “liason agreement” in which they vowed to coordinate with each other so that they wouldn’t keep stepping on each other’s toes.

Also, the list of corporate members of the new Coalition is nearly identical to the list of members of the existing Alliance.

And one has to wonder why the new organization chose a name that was guaranteed to confuse people who are already familiar with the open RAN concept, let alone the people who aren’t.

Finally, the new Open RAN Policy Coalition has “policy” in the name, and is presided over by a political operative – albeit one well-versed in communications technology policy. The Coalition’s executive director is Diane Rinaldo, who recently stepped down as acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and as acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information. She is now also a senior vice president of Beacon Global Strategies (BGS).

“Open” initiatives are always reactions to the domination of markets by incumbent suppliers. While there’s a certain technological and market stability that comes from the largest two or three vendors controlling the course of technology development, that control can in fact come at the cost of innovation and competition.

When it comes to RANs, the leading incumbent suppliers are Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia, with Samsung making a determined effort to join the party.

Whose idea was the Coalition?
Now the industry has another grouping to muddy the waters. It is unclear at this stage whether the initiative for the Coalition came from the U.S. government or the member companies.

In a statement, the Coalition said it believes the federal government “has an important role to play in facilitating and fostering an open, diverse and secure supply chain for advanced wireless technologies, including 5G, such as by funding research and development, and testing open and interoperable networks and solutions and incentivizing supply chain diversity.”

This clearly suggests that this is not merely a commercial and technological initiative, but a political one as well.

Rinaldo said that “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 we noted above, that is pretty much the raison d’etre of the O-RAN Alliance and a big part of the mission of TIP’s OpenRAN initiative.

Blog: Are Telcos Ready for Openness?
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It is also worth noting that the announcement of the formation of the Coalition comes just weeks after a bipartisan group of Senators proposed a $1 billion investment fund into the open infrastructure effort.

The companies involved include AT&T, Verizon, Juniper Networks, Cisco, Amazon’s AWS operation, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm, Dish Networks, Microsoft and XCOM-Labs, as well as some of the smaller companies leading the charge towards a more open approach towards the 5G RAN, notably U.S. companies such as Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless.

Not involved in the Open RAN Policy Coalition, as noted earlier, are: Nokia and Ericsson, the two European companies, are supplying the infrastructure to most US carriers as they roll out 5G. Not surprisingly, neither is Huawei.

The Scandinavian duo has shown tepid interest in the open RAN idea. The Swedish group has joined the O-RAN Alliance, even as the whole concept is a huge threat to its future. Nokia has also joined, and is even a member of the TIP, but neither company seems to have contributed much to the party.

Again, this is hardly surprising. The main advantages and selling points of the new approach are to allow operators to mix-and-match components, thus breaking the current vendors’ lock-in approach.

But perhaps both Ericsson and Nokia believe it is better to be inside, even if on the periphery, rather than completely outside.

And, as we reported, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless are involved in trials in several countries with their version.

Interestingly, and importantly, the Coalition’s list also includes overseas companies such as Japanese groups Rakuten Mobile and NTT DoCoMo and international carriers Vodafone and Telefonica.

Rakuten is arguably the most advanced in implementing the Open RAN concept: it has already supplied its virtualized system for use in commercial LTE services, and says it expects to be the first to be able to offer an option of its infrastructure to 5G operators.

However, not everyone in the US administration is fully on board. As we noted, Attorney General William Barr, a former Verizon executive, dubbed the concept “pie in the sky.” Despite that, a bipartisan group of Senators recently proposed a $1 billion investment fund to support the open infrastructure project.

As noted, companies at the leading edge of developing open RAN welcomed the formation of the Coalition. For instance, Altiostar’s executive vice president, Thierry Maupile, liked the fact that U.S. policy makers would be the Coalition’s initial focus. The company was at the core of a group that has been lobbying hard for government policies favorable to the open RAN efforts.

“Open RAN networks are a significant departure from the traditional industry model and legislators need to know the advantages and how government actions can help in accelerating the development and deployment of open and interoperable solutions,” said Maupile in a statement.

And Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless, stressed that advocacy of open RAN will be hugely important because the technology involved in the RAN is more complex than for other aspects of the infrastructure.

“We are excited to see an ecosystem of global mobile operators, hardware and software vendors coming together to drive adoption of openness and interoperability for 4G and 5G networks,” said Papa.

Parallel Wireless also suggests the Coalition will become an important addition to the standardization efforts being done under the auspices of the O-RAN Alliance.

Meanwhile, Attilio Zani, executive director of TIP, said at the core of the project’s work is “the development and deployment of open, disaggregated, standards-based solutions – that are developed in conjunction with the operators.” He added he welcomes the “supportive policy environment that allows new technology to flourish.”

Unfortunately, so far, hardly any existing operators have committed to more than trialing the open approach. And to date Rakuten is the sole greenfield operator to have deployed a live network, using radios powered by Altiostar’s software.

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