The development of open link network technology (Open RAN) is advancing at a good pace, although its implementation is not expected to be imminent, much less widespread, but rather suitable for niche applications. The traditional providers, notably Nokia but also Ericsson, want to get a very large part of the new “open” network business, while other big telecommunications equipment companies, such as NTT DoCoMo and Samsung, aspire to conquer much of the rest, leaving very little market for small Open RAN providers.
To further complicate the picture, the current owners of 5G patents intend to assert their rights in RAN interfaces supposedly already standardized by 3GPP, such as X2, and charge a toll, as some alternative providers fear, such as Parallel Wireless or Mavenir, among the most acquaintances. Another burning issue is that multiple “open” RAN technologies, not necessarily compatible with each other, can co-exist when eventually developed and become a nightmare for operators. Not to mention that telecommunications networks managed “on site” will be joined by virtualized networks and those based entirely on the cloud, with an amalgamation of alliances between multiple hardware, software, application and operator providers.
Telecommunications networks have always operated in an ecosystem mode, with state or regional operators that provided the service based on strict international and national regulations and licenses granted for the use of the radio spectrum. These operators, in turn, were supported by a plethora of system, equipment, software and component suppliers, who competed at a national and increasingly international level, with the only important limitation being that everything must be compatible and, obviously, that communications cross any border between countries or technology, both in fixed and mobile telephony.
The development of Open RAN open network technology is advancing, although the complexity of the subject and the many related aspects make its availability in large networks unpredictable for now
The emergence of powerful alternative telecommunications operators, the so-called Big Tech, with enormous financial resources and a global reach, which exceeds traditional national borders, added to the emergence of new communications technologies based on the cloud and virtualization, as well as the convergence of fixed, mobile and soon satellite networks poses an extremely complex scenario, without forgetting the greater interference of nationalist politics in organizations that, until now, were mostly business and with a clearly technological and international vocation.
The US veto of Huawei equipment, its strategic interest in manufacturing its own telecommunications equipment again and the virtual monopoly of US technology giants on key issues, no matter how much China’s progress is feared, is causing the various regions of the world compete with each other so as not to lose positions. An example is the emergence of Open RAN, aimed at breaking the current status quo in telecommunications equipment and networks, controlled in more than three quarters by Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.
In 2020, the British Government mandated that, by the end of 2027, UK telecoms operators no longer have Huawei equipment on their networks, directly affecting BT and Vodafone, which are highly dependent on Huawei equipment. Chinese. The task is not easy, because the equipment already installed is useful for many years and, if you want to upgrade from 4G to 5G, either use equipment from the same manufacturer or install a completely new network and waste the existing one, without renewing it. .
Recently, moreover, Vodafone and BT have recognized that it is not possible to turn off 3G in the short or medium term, because there are many users dependent on it, nor 2G either, because it is necessary for many roaming services or communications between machines, and maintain the equipment, even from Huawei, for many years. As for the current 4G networks, they can be maintained until 2027 if they are from Huawei, but without updating them to 5G, and gradually introducing the new mobile generation with more open networks or networks that are not from Huawei (nor supposedly from ZTE, another large manufacturer). Chinese).
The Open RAN Resource
When the British government decided in 2020 to join the wishes of the United States and veto Huawei, an option that seemed very feasible then in order not to depend on Chinese manufacturers was to install the new networks with open technology, Open RAN. But two years have passed and Open RAN technology continues to be feasible, but on a more imprecise date and, for the time being, limited to very specific areas.
The United States does not have as many problems as the United Kingdom to do without Huawei, because the big operators have not installed Chinese equipment in their telecom networks and the regional operators, which do have, are receiving subsidies to dismantle it (although they consider the amount approved very insufficient and that puts at risk their business model and the service they provide in large rural areas). US regional operators, like European ones, were satisfied with Huawei for its quality, price and service provided.
In any case, Vodafone UK has been carrying out various tests of Open RAN networks for some time to reduce its dependence on Huawei and take advantage of the aid granted by its Government. Just a month ago, it launched the first commercial Open RAN site near the city of Bath, in the west of England, of the 2,500 4G and 5G sites that the operator plans to install by 2027 with this system in the west of the United Kingdom. , where the entire network is powered by Huawei.
On March 1 and 2, within the framework of the MWC, two informative meetings are planned on the future evolution of Open RAN, by eminent representatives of the industry, apart from the topic being discussed at different stands
The brand new site, or radio station, inaugurated, however, lacks an essential ingredient: the antenna. Vodafone decided last year that the suppliers of the Open RAN antennas would be Samsung and NEC, but they are still developing and verifying that they are fully compatible with the rest of the network. In a meeting with the media in early 2019, Scott Petty, then chief technology officer of Vodafone UK and now of the entire group, said Huawei had supplied around 6,000 of the 18,000 sites Vodafone has in the UK. .
It remains to be decided, therefore, what to do with the remaining 3,500, whether to also leave them to Samsung and NEC with Open RAN, or to go to Ericsson, which in 2019 had some 10,000 sites, or Nokia, with the remaining 2,000 of the 4G network of Vodafone. If in the end Vodafone ends up in 2017 with 2,500 Open RAN sites, it would mean 14% of the entire Vodafone UK network, which is not much for the company that is most committed to this open technology, as telecommunications experts have noted.
BT tests an RIC Open RAN with Nokia
While Vodafone UK has been involved in Open RAN with NEC, and especially with Samsung, BT has always been suspicious of the goodness of this technology. Last November, Neil McRae, chief technology officer of the entire British telecommunications group, assured that “one of the great myths of Open RAN is that it will save us money.” “I view it with a lot of skepticism,” he added, “because I know how much it costs to write free software code and I know the price of chips from Intel and other alternative L1 component manufacturers.”
In any case, despite the fact that BT considers that it is too optimistic about the future of Open RAN and its possibilities and cost, the company also assures that it is deeply involved in its development and in the collaboration with TIP and the O-RAN Alliance. , the two organizations that coordinate its development. Perhaps to quell some criticism that it is too pessimistic about Open RAN, on January 26, a few days after Vodafone UK, it announced an agreement with Nokia to test an Open RAN solution in the British city of Hull and “improve the mobile broadband experience.
BT’s agreement with Nokia focuses on testing the installation of Nokia’s RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) for Open RAN at various BT mobile network sites (bearing the EE brand) in the area, in order to optimize their benefits. As McRae says in the statement, “the Open RAN trial agreement with Nokia is one of the many investments we are making to expand the capabilities of EE’s 4G and 5G network and better serve our users.” Among them, the Open RAN innovation center that BT plans to inaugurate at the end of the year in Adastral Park, similar to the laboratories being set up by Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Vodafone, the four major European operators most involved in Open RAN.
BT’s agreement with Nokia on Open RAN has highlighted the great importance of intelligent controllers in link networks, known for short as RICs. And, also, if the inclusion of a RIC Open RAN in a network is enough to consider it Open RAN. This Nokia RIC, which will work in near real time (its full name is Near-Real Time RIC), will be used to monitor and manage up to eight Nokia 4G/5G RAN network sites, in this case Open RAN, and ensure that interfaces communicate well with the rest of the network.
The main application of this Nokia RIC will therefore be to monitor network traffic and detect operating anomalies. Initially, it will be used only in very specific applications and, furthermore, Nokia itself acknowledges that it is still in its early stages of development. In the laboratory tests it will be possible to observe if it is ready for use in real networks. The agreement with Nokia with 5G link networks dates back to 2020. Therefore, for some experts, it is only the first step of a long journey before seeing Open RAN networks in full operation. The fact that BT has partnered with Nokia demonstrates, on the one hand, the Finnish company’s commitment to developing Open RAN technologies but, on the other, that it does not want to leave an open flank for other companies to enter this business segment, at least in Europe.
The X2 interface, embedded in the RAN
Another topic related to Open RAN networks that has recently been talked about is the situation of X2, a technical interface that allows radio stations to interact and communicate with each other and with the general network. In principle, X2 is part of the standards approved by the 3GPP and should be available loose, although subject to charging for user licenses.
However, according to John Baker, vice president and head of business development at Mavenir, a US company that develops Open RAN products, X2 is embedded and an intrinsic part of the base stations of link network manufacturers, such as Ericsson or Nokia. For Mavenir, this is a serious problem, because it cannot make open parts of link networks as it does not have access to the X2 interface, according to what he told the specialized publication Light Reading. Mavenir has also complained to the FCC, the US telecommunications regulatory body, because “X2 is fully specified but remains closed or under license.” Some licenses that Mavenir considers to have an unjustifiably high price.
Some telecommunications experts believe that the difficulties of developing a fully open network have not been taken into account. Apart from the X2 interface, there is another, the CPRI, which is responsible for processing and communicating the radio signals between different base stations. CPRI is specified by the 3GPP, but there are gaps in some parts, which the RAN manufacturers are responsible for filling and that in the end is what makes them incompatible with each other unless the whole set is from the same manufacturer.
Gordon Brown, an analyst at consultancy Heavy Reading (and which belongs to Light Reading), also does not consider it desirable, neither from a commercial nor a technological point of view, that there are several network providers in the same geographical area. In his opinion, operators prefer the same provider to cover a wide geographical area of their network. This avoids problems of interference between signals and incompatibilities between interfaces.
Eventually, intelligent controllers (RIC) could control base stations from different suppliers, whether they are open or closed RAN, and replace the classic RAN architectures made up of equipment from the same manufacturer and in a dynamic way. RICs, in this sense, are key to the future of Open RAN technology, but are still in their early stages of development. RICs are further subdivided into non-real-time centralized controllers (C-RICs) and near-real-time distributed controllers (D-RICs).
In two weeks, at the MWC, two sessions are planned for those interested in learning more about Open RAN. Open RAN will be discussed on March 2, 12:30-1:30 p.m. in Hall 5, with CTOs at Parallel Wireless, Red Hat, Turk Telekom and Mavenir’s John Baker and Neil McRae , of BT Group, cited above. On March 1, the O-RAN Alliance, apart from participating in different panels, plans to hold an informative meeting from 5:15 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Deutsche Telekom stand, in Hall 3, with the announcement of its fifth version . There is no doubt that Open RAN arouses a lot of interest and that they will be meetings with a high participation of attendees (although many will be virtual).