Gulf telco Etisalat has put some Middle Eastern muscle behind one of today's hottest technology trends with the launch of an open radio access network (RAN) that uses virtualization products developed by Altiostar, Cisco and NEC, among other suppliers.
Headquartered in Abu Dhabi, the company this week claimed to be the first operator in the Middle East and North Africa to get behind open RAN technology, although the extent of its commitment is currently unclear.
Conceived as a challenge to the main mobile infrastructure vendors, open RAN technology promises an end to the proprietary interfaces that force service providers to buy all their RAN products from the same equipment vendor.
Concern about the growing power of Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia -- which dominate today's mobile infrastructure market -- fueled interest in open RAN technology last year, when several telco giants, including Telefónica and Vodafone, announced investments in open RAN technology and trials.
Now Etisalat has joined the club, revealing that it has started using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware as an alternative to the dedicated gear that is typically deployed.
Etisalat did not say whether it is using open RAN technologies in a commercial setting or simply carrying out trials at this stage, and it has not indicated where open RAN is being used.
But its goal is to build an open and virtualized RAN (so-called vRAN) across the United Arab Emirates, said Saeed Al Zarouni, Etisalat's senior vice president of mobile networks, as the company makes the transition to a more software-based system.
"Deploying the open vRAN is vital in enabling digital transformation aimed at increasing efficiencies and the utilization of AI [artificial intelligence]," he said in a statement. "Etisalat now plans to roll out Open vRAN across the UAE to take full advantage of all the benefits that this new technology offers."
In a fully open and virtualized mobile network, an operator should be able to buy network software from a multitude of vendors and run this on standardized equipment, or "white boxes."
With more open interfaces, a telco could also buy its radios and signal-processing gear from different suppliers -- something not possible in today's more proprietary networks.
That represents a potential threat to Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia. All three rely on selling products in which hardware and software are tightly coupled. The lack of interoperability has also been a welcome barrier to competition for the big vendors, say their critics.
Etisalat has named several of its open RAN suppliers, including Altiostar -- a US software company that counts Japan's Rakuten and Spain's Telefónica as investors -- as well as Japan's NEC and US-based Cisco.
Despite telco interest, open RAN continues to lag traditional technology on performance, according to Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading. And skeptics, including some telco executives, think using open software and numerous suppliers would lead to greater operational complexity, driving up costs.
Proponents have acknowledged that open RAN technology is still not ready for mass-market deployment, although commitments by the likes of Etisalat should help to spur activity and attract investors.
In the meantime, Etisalat has already launched 5G services in Dubai on traditional RAN infrastructure provided by Ericsson. Last year, Huawei was also reported to have signed a 5G contract with the Middle Eastern service provider.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading