Telecom Italia halves software costs in vRAN trials

MADRID -- 5G Core Summit 2019 -- Telecom Italia is considering a broader deployment of virtual and open radio access networks after trials with several partners led to major cost savings on the software side.

The update comes after pilot projects with companies including Altiostar, a US software company backed by Japan's Rakuten, as well as more established mobile equipment vendors, including Ericsson and Nokia.

Lucy Lombardi, Telecom Italia's senior vice president of digital and ecosystem innovation, said virtualization had allowed the operator to manage numerous antennas from one centralized intelligence unit.

In its traditional set-up, Telecom Italia must allocate software resources for each cell based on its individual busy-hour traffic. So-called "vRAN dimensioning" means the operator can dynamically allocate resources to cells in the cluster.

That led to savings of up to 50% on software resources, said Lombardi, who was presenting findings at this week's 5G Core Summit in Madrid.

In a related step, Telecom Italia is also now working through an association called the O-RAN Alliance to spur competition in the market for radio access networks.

That group, which includes many of the world's Tier 1 operators, is trying to open the interfaces that lock service providers into one vendor's system. It received a major boost in the last few days with news that Japan's NTT DoCoMo would launch "pre-commercial" 5G services based on new O-RAN specifications.

But the shift to a more virtualized and open RAN will not happen overnight. Operators gathered here in Madrid have consistently complained that building virtualized, multivendor networks -- whether in the radio or the core -- remains an arduous and costly activity because of the effort required to integrate so many different technologies.

Enrique Blanco, the chief technology officer of Spain's Telefónica, is determined to avoid building a "single-vendor" 5G core network that would make him dependent on just one supplier. But he acknowledged during a presentation that his multivendor approach would be costlier and more difficult.

Meanwhile, at the separate Open Networking Summit taking place in Antwerp, France's Orange issued a plea for help with O-RAN integration. "We need the right methodology … it's a massive challenge," said Olivier Simon, the director of radio innovation at Orange Labs Networks. "The success or failure of an open RAN concept depends on operators' capacity to find a good test and integration model."

For Telecom Italia, a further complication is the network-sharing deal it recently concluded with Vodafone in its domestic market. Telecom Italia believes this agreement could lead to RAN cost savings of about 40%. But the sharing of active equipment including basestations means the operators are partly reliant on the same suppliers. That would force them to collaborate on any widespread deployment of open and virtualized RAN technology.

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The Italian incumbent is under huge pressure to slash costs after it racked up debts in recent years and spent heavily on new 5G spectrum licenses during a government auction last year.

Commenting on trends in the market, Lombardi said that "revenues are stable and investments will increase" as operators pump money into the rollout of 5G networks. Reducing costs in the RAN is a priority because it currently accounts for about 60% of the total network bill, she said.

On the core side, Lombardi is concerned that so many questions have yet to be answered on network slicing, a technique that should allow an operator to provide many different types of virtualized network service over the same 5G infrastructure.

"Is it fixed or dynamic? Are these rigid slices or done dynamically on a per-minute basis? Who configures it? The operator or the enterprise customer?" she said.

The 3GPP, the main standards body behind 5G technology, is due to finalize work on Release 16, intended to provide some degree of support for network slicing, in June next year.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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