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December 11, 2023
Orange's new executive vice president and CTIO, Bruno Zerbib, has downplayed interest in 6G technology, saying the industry needs to move beyond the Gs at a recent meeting with reporters in Paris during the operator's Open Tech Days event.
Zerbib said: "We've been pretty much stuck in a generational paradigm where there was 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G," adding "I personally believe that 5G is the last G and we're moving beyond Gs." Instead, he expects the company will in future focus on continuous innovation.
Orange will be able to do this because it is essentially software defined, said Zerbib. As a result, it may, for example, be able to target gamers with a hypothetical upgrade that would reduce latency, or unlock new IoT capabilities for enterprises.
"What our customers are telling us is that they didn't feel much difference moving from 4G to 5G and they should, but we fail in terms of communication," he said. In his view, the company didn't talk enough about benefits like energy efficiency and network reliability.
This, of course, doesn't mean there will be no major upgrades to the underlying technology. "There will be times when we'll have to think about needing new radio technology. There will be parts that will be a bit more discrete and discontinuous in terms of improvement," Zerbib said.
His remarks come as telcos appear increasingly reluctant to carry out a major hardware refresh to upgrade to 6G. There seems to be little appetite to repeat the pattern set by 5G, with operators instead wishing to introduce 6G through "software-based feature upgrades of existing network elements," according to a recent statement by the telco group NGMN.
Open RAN growing pains
Zerbib also told Light Reading in a separate interview that the company remains committed to open RAN. He admitted there will be hurdles, but said it is the future.
Today, the big open RAN challenge is the introduction of more moving parts, which need to come together and work as well as the "old monolithic paradigm," said Zerbib. While this could produce a more vibrant landscape, operators need to be capable of dealing with the increased complexity.
"There is a cost and operational risk," he said. "I think what you will see in the next couple of years is how do you deal with those moving parts."
Zerbib also dismissed recent remarks by Verizon's president of global networks and technology, Joseph Russo, who told an investor conference that open RAN is not suitable for massive MIMO, an advanced 5G technology.
"I don't think it's an issue because I think it's a maturity model," said Zerbib. "I think you have maturity curves and you know you will have to go through some hoops, but eventually you get there."
The real structural challenge for open RAN, according to Zerbib, is figuring out who will be liable for problems – whether the operator that takes responsibility when something goes wrong, or a third-party integrator is be needed.
Openness and flexibility seem to be a big part of Orange's vision for the future, as it transitions to what Zerbib called "telco as a platform." The company is open to working more with others, including hyperscalers, and embracing technologies from outside Orange.
This is part of a broader change in culture that seems to be underway at Orange. Zerbib himself comes from a background that may appear atypical for a telco executive, having joined Orange six months ago after spending most of his career in the US at a range of disparate companies including HP, Cisco and Yahoo. In his discussions with the press, he stressed, however, that his appointment is a sign of, not a reason for, a changing culture at Orange.
One of Orange's goals is becoming more open to meeting the needs of enterprise customers. They should, for example, be able to choose if they want their own 5G core, be it a 5G standalone network or a fully-cloud based core.
One of the demos showcased during the day was a cloud-based private mobile network. Using the example of a TV production crew, the technology would allow a 5G camera and antenna to connect to the public cloud (AWS in this case), where Orange has deployed its 5G network. It could then connect to a remote production site, reducing the amount of equipment that would be needed in the field. Apart from entertainment, the operator is also targeting logistics and manufacturing with the solution.
The cloud seems to be a big part of Orange's vision, but there are limitations to what workloads will go to the public cloud, Zerbib told Light Reading.
"I don't think that right now that we want to have our public 5G core that we use for normal calls to run on the public cloud," he said. A dedicated B2B 5G core could be put in the public cloud if the customer wishes, however. In many cases, the type of cloud use will depend on the customer. No hyperscaler involvement may sometimes be acceptable, said Zerbib.
In some countries, existing legislation may prevent Orange from experimenting with putting certain sensitive workloads in the public cloud. But regulations differ across the 26 markets where Orange is present, and there may be greater freedom to work with vendors in some of its markets.
Another part of the ongoing change is Orange's embrace of disaggregation and "softwarization," as well as AI. "We are essentially software defined," said Zerbib.
AI will not kill any jobs
Generative AI is now another of Orange's focus areas and there are plans to implement it in all areas where there is human interaction. While Orange is committed to training staff in the use of the technology, the goal is to increase productivity, not cut headcount, insisted Zerbib. "We're not going to kill any jobs."
Nevertheless, Jean Bolot, Orange's SVP for research, highlighted the move toward semi-autonomous networks when discussing Orange's research activities with journalists.
Through intent-based networking, AI can generate a set of steps needed to reach a desired state, such as introducing a new network slice or increasing the security level in a certain zone, he said.
But an entire ecosystem of manufacturers and other operators will need to get on board with network automation if it is to be successful, said Bolot.
Read more about:Europe
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