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5G operators are taking to the clouds

Open RAN promises to break the stranglehold of major vendors, but it won’t be easy

In the 1980s, computer giant IBM narrowly prevented it from being split into parts in the same way that telephone company Bell did in the previous decade.

Part of the reason the U.S. government halted its antitrust investigation into Big Blue was the enthusiasm of then-President Ronald Reagan for the way the company had managed to break into the Japanese market at a time when Far Eastern electronics companies Destroy US suppliers. thanks to their willingness to sell products more cheaply.

In that case, IBM’s delay turned out to be less effective than management had hoped. In early 1993, the company set the record for the largest operating loss ever in U.S. corporate history, at least up to that point.

IBM’s weakness turned out not to be anti-trust attorneys worried about how it dominated the mainframe and minicomputer markets, leading to many potential competitors quitting. The old adage was “no one got fired for buying IBM”.

The weak point was the personal computer developed by the company’s own engineers, which paved the way for much cheaper alternatives to its own highly profitable proprietary hardware. By the end of that decade, you really needed a good reason to buy the rock-solid machines from IBM, not a network of PC-based servers.

Geopolitical concerns, again driven by US presidents, are at the heart of a similar development that could overthrow an oligarchy of suppliers in the wireless communications industry.

At the March meeting of the US Federal Communications Commission, Acting Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel pointed to a “supply chain challenge”.

In a statement prepared for the meeting, she stated: “We have only four major mobile network equipment suppliers to choose from, none of which are from the United States.

In addition, the vendors that have grown fastest in recent years come from China, in part because the Chinese government is pursuing strong industrial policies to put their equipment to use cheaper than the alternatives. “

The combination of fear of national security and competitiveness has made China the number one public enemy of telecom to the US, a policy that successfully exports the world’s largest economy to Europe and elsewhere.

This, in turn, has led the FCC to decide that it is time to find out about a movement that has been developing for several years among telecom operators and component suppliers.

There is a good reason why there are only a handful of suppliers of advanced wireless telecom equipment: it is expensive and complex to develop and support.

The radio access network (RAN) of base stations, controllers and routers that route data in and out of the fiber optic network to the airwaves is based on a huge set of standard documents.

And they must meet stringent uptime and response time requirements, especially for 5G, which is being promoted for applications such as network robots that need to reduce round-trip latency to the order of a few milliseconds.

However, the OpenRAN movement recognizes that 5G and its predecessors are open standards. It must be possible to think of ways to get parts from different suppliers and still work together.

Some functions could potentially be moved to low-cost commodity computers programmed in the same way cloud servers are today, so that if one breaks, the workload will simply go to the nearest available node running the same services, but not necessarily on identical hardware. In principle, this would improve uptime overall and turn out cheaper, not least because much of the hardware will be cheaper, unbranded “white box” versions. Which operator will not like that option? The FCC is now also excited about the idea.

At the FCC, we’re starting the very first Open RAN investigation, ”noted Rosenworcel. Today, the RAN is the most restrictive and expensive part of the network, in part because all major components must come from the same supplier.

There is no way to mix and match. But if we can unlock the RAN and diversify the equipment in this part of our networks, we can potentially increase security, reduce our exposure to a single overseas supplier, lower costs, and push the equipment market to the unique place of the United States. . proficient in software. “

One of the ironies of this exercise is that China Unicom coined the term Open RAN as part of its proposal to open up the RAN environment at the 2013 ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) conference.

In March, where the FCC said it would accelerate its involvement in Open RAN, the agency prepared to ban China Unicom from the US market.

Across the Atlantic, after deciding to reduce network operators’ reliance on Huawei hardware, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said last November that the government would invest £ 250 million in diversifying 5G sources, in a program that followed the decision to set up a task force led by former BT CEO Ian Livingstone to investigate the potential of Open RAN. In January, operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on a European Open RAN ecosystem.

While it now has the theoretical backing of major operators, smaller service providers, such as Japan-based Rakuten, can handle much of the early implementation. According to the RAN research group at Rethink Technology Research, it is the alternative operators most likely to want to use Open RAN in the early stages.

Part of that is that the larger vendors are already well underway with their 5G rollout, which is necessarily based on the products sold by the big guns. Still, growth in Open RAN could be rapid. According to Rethink, Open RAN deployments could account for nearly 60 percent of global RAN capital expenditures by 2026, totaling $ 32.3 billion by then.

Despite Open RAN’s obvious appeal, the impending death of its major vendors may be an exaggeration. In a webinar last week hosted by chipmaker Analog Devices, one of the companies now selling reference designs for the radio units, Raj Singh, executive vice president of Marvell’s processors business group, said,

There are things you can virtualize and there are things that are more difficult to virtualize, especially the closer you get to the radio. When you break down functions, that breakdown introduces a certain amount of latency. So you cannot just take everything apart. You have to do it judiciously. “

A big problem in the pursuit of virtualization is how to deal with technology such as massive MIMO, which is crucial for delivering super-fast data to multiple users in built-up areas.

Ideally, you would want multiple base stations located close together to try to maximize spectrum usage, but doing this with multi-vendor hardware will be difficult while higher-level features such as packet rerouting between Wi-Fi and 5G nodes, is probably easier to handle given all the latency limitations that 5G has. But even that will not be easy.

A big problem in the pursuit of virtualization is how to deal with technology such as massive MIMO, which is crucial for delivering super-fast data to multiple users in built-up areas.

Ideally, you would want multiple base stations located close together to try to maximize spectrum usage, but doing this with multi-vendor hardware will be difficult while higher-level features such as packet rerouting between Wi-Fi and 5G nodes, is probably easier to handle given all the latency limitations that 5G has.

But even that is not going to be easy. “The challenge for Open RAN will be the unboxing experience. Service providers are now used to working with one counter.

Dealing with a disaggregated network will be difficult. Unless the setup is simple, it’s hard to imagine that [OpenbRAN] will be deployed on a large scale, ”said Jaydeep Ranade, director of wireless engineering at Facebook Connectivity.

Singh said it will call on suppliers and users to collaborate much more with each other, which is happening to some extent. Vodafone, for example, has set up tests for Open RAN and is now looking for ways to publish the results achieved.

“Open RAN requires us to work together, often with people we treat as competitors. And that’s not just at the software level, but at levels we haven’t thought of yet, ” said Singh.

While collaboration will likely help make equipment work together more easily, there is a different outlet for today’s major suppliers, assuming they are allowed to sell in any country at all. “Someone has to put this together,” Singh said.

“There is a role for system integrators. Even a role for incumbents to do system integration and do the sutures together. When IBM fell under its dominance in the early 1990s, it largely reinvented itself as a systems integrator, something that companies like Ericsson and Nokia could do themselves – although people like Cisco look hungry at the market, knowing it’s a home grown.supplier they will be the popular choice for US regulators.

While it faces serious challenges, most indicators point to Open RAN getting an easier ride in the next decade.exactly when, ”said Paco Martin, Vodafone’s chief network planning officer.