The Olympic Games is always an occasion for setting records and breaking barriers. And as it prepares to switch on its 5G network in advance of next year's Tokyo-based event, Japan's NTT DoCoMo is already aiming for an Olympian breakthrough of its own with the announcement of plans to launch a 4G and 5G network using a mix and match of equipment from a multitude of vendors. The system will be a world first, it claims.
It's a big deal because telcos have previously been locked into single-vendor contracts when deploying their radio access networks (RANs). Despite standardization efforts, operators have not been able to use one vendor's baseband gear with another's radio equipment. Working across different 4G and 5G vendor systems has been similarly problematic. Critics say this interoperability dilemma has led to "vendor lock-in" and strengthened a small number of giant RAN vendors, namely Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.
Through a group called the Open RAN Alliance (or O-RAN Alliance), some of the world's biggest operators, as well as numerous equipment suppliers, are trying to break down the walls. O-RAN had previously finalized work on new fronthaul specifications, providing "open" links between baseband and radio equipment, as well as the so-called X2 profile, which supports connections between 4G and 5G baseband products. Now Japan's largest operator is taking those technologies to market.
In a detailed statement, NTT DoCoMo says it has been able to achieve "multi-vendor interoperability" across 4G and 5G networks, with Finland's Nokia providing the baseband systems but Japan's Fujitsu and NEC contributing the radio units. This Friday, it will launch a "pre-commercial 5G service" using this mixture of vendors.
"It is pretty significant for O-RAN because DoCoMo is a genuinely leading operator, a rainmaker in these things," says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading. "They have said this will conform with O-RAN specifications in what looks like the production 4G and 5G network."
While not yet confirmed, a full commercial 5G rollout would be a massive boost for O-RAN and a potential game-changer for the industry. Full interoperability could bring fresh competition into the market, spurring innovation and lowering costs. It also holds out the prospect of working with a different 5G vendor from the 4G supplier, something operators say is not currently possible. Indeed, the US-led campaign to ban Huawei from Western 5G markets has met telco resistance partly due to concern about the costs of replacing 4G gear.
"One of the criticisms of the 5G RAN was about using the same 4G vendor, but the implication here is that you could do multivendor," says Brown, pointing to NTT DoCoMo's statements about the O-RAN Alliance's X2 specifications. "What they don't appear to be saying is that they have different baseband vendors for 4G and 5G, but they are saying they can do it. There is no question at all this is a big statement about O-RAN."
NTT DoCoMo's update is not a complete surprise, he says, because the operator had already been in trials with Fujitsu, NEC and Nokia. Today's move aligns that model with the O-RAN specifications at an important moment. "Whatever they are doing has to be rock solid because the Rugby World Cup is coming in a couple of weeks," says Brown. "That is a warm-up for the Olympics in terms of international attention on Japanese networks and all operators will be launching a limited 5G service."
The world's telcos will be watching.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading