AT&T opens up about open RAN

Some of AT&T's top networking executives have begun talking up the benefits of open RAN.

"We believe that open RAN is going to be a good benefit for us, and we actually plan to implement it in our network," Scott Mair, AT&T's president of technology and operations and one of the operator's top 5G executives, said this week at the Barclay Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference. "We think it's really a good technology that will become available. But it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time."

Mair added that AT&T started work on open RAN technology in 2018 with a handful of other vendors. Now, he said, there are hundreds of companies working on the technology all over the world.

"It's starting to take on a lot of speed and a lot of importance," he said.

Mair said open RAN could improve AT&T's capital expenses and operating expenses. On the capex side, he said open RAN helps to "invite in innovation" by opening the radio access network (RAN) to new vendors.

"We'll be able to mix and match components," he said. "That's a capex benefit."

And in terms of opex, Mair said AT&T can use open RAN to add a layer of network automation on top of its existing network-management systems.

"We think open RAN is going to be really good," he added.

Mair isn't alone.

Mazin Gilbert, AT&T's VP of network analytics and automation, described how the operator plans to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies in its network using open RAN.

During a presentation at this week's Light Reading Open RAN Ecosystem Digital Symposium, Gilbert said that combining open RAN with AI results in "control loop automation."

"There are beautiful, huge opportunities for vendors, startups and companies to be creating these machine learning or AI applications," he said, explaining that open RAN technology promises to separate the hardware and software elements in a wireless network, thereby allowing vendors to develop new services across a variety of networking components.

Gilbert added that AT&T is already conducting open RAN field trials "with a large number of vendors."

But he too cautioned patience: "This journey of going to open RAN is not going to happen overnight," he said, mentioning a timeline of three to five years for open RAN deployments.

AT&T is commercially operating an open RAN network design in Dallas with equipment from Samsung and Ericsson, according to evidence uncovered by Signals Research Group.

However, AT&T doesn't yet appear to be ready to talk openly about its open RAN tests. "We won't really have anything to contribute here," a spokesperson wrote in response to questions from Light Reading on the topic earlier this year.

AT&T is one of a number of wireless network operators around the world touting an embrace of open RAN technology. However, many in the space have argued that new market entrants like Dish Network and Rakuten can more easily implement open RAN designs when compared with incumbents like AT&T that must also manage a wide range of legacy equipment.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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