5G and Beyond

Nokia is first big kit vendor to unveil O-RAN suite

A member of the ruling equipment triumvirate has turned revolutionary.

Nokia went all Che Guevara Tuesday morning with what appears to be the first-ever commercial launch of open RAN (O-RAN) 5G products by one of the giant kit vendors. The move has ramifications for the entire industry and will have service providers, O-RAN companies, Nokia's big rivals and even government authorities trying to figure out what it means for them.

O-RAN, lest anyone forget, is usually pitched as an alternative to the "closed" systems mainly in use in today's radio access networks (RANs). It comes with a new set of interfaces that should, in theory, allow operators to build a RAN with products from different suppliers. Technical restrictions currently force telcos to shop within the same vendor's system.

Critics say this has reinforced the stranglehold on the RAN market of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, which account for roughly 80% of all RAN sales, according to some estimates.

So why would Nokia even think about embracing O-RAN?

Largely because that is what customers and even government authorities are increasingly demanding. For service providers, O-RAN holds out the promise of greater competition and lower costs, and it could make them less reliant on a few powerful suppliers. For security watchdogs and government officials, it has more recently become a potential alternative to risky Chinese vendors, including Huawei and ZTE.

O-RAN currently accounts for only about 1% of industry sales, according to Dell'Oro, a market-research firm. But that figure looks bound to grow as more service providers make O-RAN a part of their technical strategy. Even if Nokia has to settle for less business than it has traditionally enjoyed, a smaller share is obviously better than nothing.

The Finnish firm has always seemed less resistant than Ericsson or Huawei to O-RAN technology. It was a member of the O-RAN Alliance, the group developing O-RAN specifications, from the outset, and it has long been involved with the Telecom Infra Project, a Facebook-led initiative experimenting with low-cost network technologies. Ericsson officially joined the O-RAN Alliance at a later date and remains on the outside of TIP, while Huawei is a part of neither.

Nokia has also figured in what is probably the world's most closely watched O-RAN deployment – the rollout of a nationwide O-RAN network by Japan's Rakuten. In that project, it is contributing 4G radio units that run software developed by Altiostar, a US startup in which Rakuten holds a majority stake.

The bundle of 5G products it is announcing today covers every part of the RAN, from the radio units and gateways to the servers and baseband products (used to process signals). General availability of this product portfolio, billed long-windedly as the "next-generation 5G AirScale Cloud RAN solution based on vRAN 2.0," is expected in 2021.

The absence of any partners seems to explain why Nokia talks up "cloud RAN" instead of O-RAN in the headline of its press release, according to Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading, a sister company to Light Reading. "It is O-RAN-compliant and architected for O-RAN, but it does not say they are working with Fujitsu or NEC or anyone else," he says. "It has the interfaces to support O-RAN, but it is all Nokia."

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Even so, it seems to offer service providers something they have long craved – the ability to replace one of Nokia's components with a product made by a rival. "They are saying you can buy this, but you still have some kind of insurance," says Brown. "We are going to be O-RAN, so if there is some part you don't like you can bring someone else in. You are not getting that from other people yet."

Its status as the smallest of the three big RAN vendors gives Nokia a reason to see more opportunity than danger in open RAN. Michael Clever, Nokia's head of edge cloud platforms, said his company would "not necessarily" have to accept less of the pie with the new technology. "We welcome the fact that there will be more players, but we also believe we will still be in a great position to compete and win additional business," he told Light Reading in emailed comments.

What also sticks out in today's announcement is mention of a potentially important shift away from Intel's x86 processors in the vRAN 2.0 set-up and toward more sophisticated graphical processing units (GPUs) in 2022, when Nokia plans a vRAN 3.0 update.

One of the main drawbacks of O-RAN is that x86 processors do not perform as well in baseband processing as the customized chips developed for traditional RAN deployments. In explaining their resistance to O-RAN, both Ericsson and Huawei have highlighted this deficiency.

GPUs developed by a company such as Nvidia could be a way around that problem, says Brown, and they would come with other benefits, too. "Nvidia has all the tooling you need to design apps for GPUs, and they are open sourced as well," he explains. "It is about power consumption and performance, but there is good tooling as well available for GPUs."

Clever said Nokia could also use chips known as FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) for more efficient processing until GPUs are ready.

"FPGAs and GPUs are used basically for the same thing – offloading the x86 from simple but compute-intensive low-layer workloads," he said via email. "GPUs still need some significant development work to adapt them to this specific Layer 1 use case."

Nokia's O-RAN move clearly puts pressure on Ericsson and will make it harder for the Swedish firm to sound resistant. However, Ericsson's stance has recently appeared to soften and this month it reportedly gave a strong signal during an investor conference that it wants to play a major role in the O-RAN market.

Brown expects both Ericsson and South Korea's Samsung, another big kit vendor, to follow Nokia with their own launch announcements about O-RAN products in due course. Ericsson announced a partnership with Nvidia at the MWC Americas show last year, he points out.

How all this will affect the smaller O-RAN specialists such as Mavenir and Parallel Wireless is still not clear. "In some ways it impinges on their value proposition, but it also legitimizes that approach," says Brown. "The competitive landscape doesn't look a lot different because of it."

Their initial reaction, though, may be to point out that everything comes from Nokia in the company's announcement. To silence them, Nokia will probably have to demonstrate the interoperability of its latest goodies.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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