Telefónica has announced an investment in Altiostar, the US software company that has reportedly attracted the interest of US authorities as a potential alternative to established vendors like Ericsson and Nokia in future 5G networks.
Besides making an investment, the Spanish operator said it would become a full member of a new technology advisory committee that Altiostar is setting up -- alongside other investors.
Altiostar is one of several companies touting more "open" radio access network (RAN) products than are currently available. Its RAN software should in theory work on any standardized radio equipment, allowing operators using its technology to buy equipment from different suppliers.
In today's production networks, operators tend to buy all the RAN products at a given site from the same supplier because interfaces do not support full interoperability.
Along with similar companies like Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, Altiostar has been boosted by growing interest in open RAN technologies as an alternative to deals with the big kit suppliers. Technology executives at major service providers have continued to complain about their dependency on a shrinking number of giant vendors.
Concerns have been amplified by the technology clash between China and the US, with senior figures in the Trump administration trying to prevent Huawei and ZTE, two Chinese equipment vendors, from building 5G networks in Western countries.
Telefónica's investment in Altiostar follows the formation last year of the O-RAN Alliance, a group now developing open interfaces for RAN networks and featuring some of the world's biggest service providers, including the Spanish operator.
It also comes after Japan's Rakuten, an ecommerce giant, began work on a new mobile network in the Japanese market using Altiostar and several other smaller companies alongside more established vendors such as Nokia.
Rakuten has also made an investment in Altiostar, which raised $114 million during a funding round in May and counts Qualcomm Ventures and Tech Mahindra, an Indian systems integrator, as other investors.
At the time of writing, Telefónica had not responded to an enquiry about the size of its investment.
But news of its investment is also a boost for the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), another group experimenting with new-look products based on open technologies.
Telefónica said it picked Altiostar as an open RAN partner at last year's TIP Summit in London, where the company was chosen to support some deployment activities in Latin American markets.
Attilio Zani, TIP's executive director, recently told Light Reading that TIP's aim is to collaborate more closely with standards and specifications bodies such as the O-RAN Alliance and the 3GPP. "The symbiosis comes when we have an output from our project groups that has tested, checked and perhaps hardened the solution," he said during a meeting in London. "That information needs to go back to the community where it can be considered by the specification."
Telefónica is not the only big service provider set to increase investments in open RAN systems. Earlier this month, Vodafone said it had kicked off field trials of open RAN technology in the UK and several African markets. "We are pleased with trials of open RAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem," said Vodafone CEO Nick Read in a statement.
According to mainstream press reports in recent weeks, US officials keen on developing homegrown alternatives to Huawei have been in discussions with Altiostar. The company could stand to benefit from government plans to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to rural service providers that have been urged to replace Huawei with other suppliers.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading