5G and Beyond

Nokia and Samsung O-RAN moves put pressure on Ericsson

As a company that now reportedly wants to be in the vanguard of the open RAN (O-RAN) movement, Ericsson could be accused of lagging.

The Swedish equipment vendor has never looked entirely comfortable about O-RAN, a hyped set of tools that would supposedly make networks more competitive and cost-efficient. Its position is that O-RAN's general-purpose processors are no performance match for its own customized gear. China's Huawei makes a similar argument.

Critics say both firms are worried about ceding market share to O-RAN suppliers. In most of today's networks, technology shortcomings force operators to buy their radios and baseband (signal-processing) products from the same vendor or its partners. New O-RAN specifications promise a fix. For the equipment incumbents, there is something to lose.

Yet the O-RAN call from major service providers has grown louder. Last month, Ericsson appeared to acknowledge this demand when it told investors it needed to be the first player providing O-RAN-compliant products once the technology had improved, according to a story published by Mobile World Live, a news site maintained by the GSM Association, a lobby group for operators.

Since then, however, two of Ericsson's biggest rivals have unveiled O-RAN-compliant goods. Nokia was the first to do so on June 23, announcing products that covered every part of the radio access network (RAN), from radio units and gateways to servers and baseband. General availability, it said, would come next year.

It was today followed by South Korea's Samsung, which has announced RAN products including fully "virtualized" baseband (meaning the software is not tied to particular hardware) and radio units. Field trials in North America are planned for later this year.

Critics are skeptical. While Samsung, a smaller player in the RAN market, named several technology partners, Nokia made no reference to other firms in its announcement. Until it can demonstrate full interoperability between its own products and those made by other O-RAN suppliers, the naysayers will be hard to silence.

Nokia is trying, though. In a follow-up announcement earlier today, the Finnish company promised an initial set of O-RAN functionalities this year and a "full suite" of O-RAN-defined interfaces in 2021. "Nokia is the only major vendor that has fully committed to developing the O-RAN interfaces," said Joe Madden, a principal analyst at Mobile Experts, in Nokia's press release, even if there were still no mention of external partners.

Marketing moves by Nokia and Samsung are probably not the only O-RAN concern for Ericsson, and possibly not the biggest. While its O-RAN statements provide no evidence of interoperability, Nokia has already "opened" its radio units to Altiostar, a RAN software company based in the US, as part of an O-RAN deployment for Japan's Rakuten.

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Samsung, meanwhile, claims to have been offering open access to its products for about a year. More importantly, when the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), a Facebook-led industry initiative, issued an O-RAN request for information, Samsung was ranked ahead of six O-RAN specialists that also responded, including Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless. The South Korean vendor was 80% compliant with requirements, said Yago Tenorio, the head of network strategy for Vodafone and TIP's chairman, during a TIP conference in Amsterdam last November.

In comparison, Ericsson is nowhere to be seen. The nearest thing it has to shout about is a virtualization tie-up with Nvidia, a US maker of graphical processing units, announced in October last year. "It goes in the direction of disaggregating software and hardware but does not open anything," said Tenorio during an interview with Light Reading at TIP's November event. "At least they are taking some steps."

But the recent O-RAN moves by Nokia and Samsung increase the likelihood that an Ericsson announcement is coming. If it can make a big deal of technology improvements when that happens, its prudence could pay off, especially if the initial O-RAN products from Nokia and Samsung are a disappointment.

In the meantime, the challenge for Ericsson is to shake off the perception it is the most resistant of the traditional non-Chinese RAN vendors to O-RAN technology. While O-RAN still accounts for only about 1% of total RAN sales, its share could approach a double-digit level within the next five years, according to Dell'Oro, a widely respected analyst firm used by Ericsson's own forecasters. That would be too big an opportunity to lose.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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