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Major Telcos Pool Efforts to Slash 5G RAN Costs

Iain Morris
2/27/2018

BARCELONA -- MWC 2018 -- In what may be seen as a further challenge to giant network vendors, several of the world's biggest operators hope to slash the costs of building 5G networks through a new initiative that brings white box technology and open source software into the radio access network (RAN).

The Open RAN (ORAN) project combines the xRAN Forum led by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) with another China Mobile-led program called C-RAN.

ORAN marks the latest attempt by operators to seize the technology initiative from vendors such as Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK). Its roster of members features major names including France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) and Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), besides AT&T, China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) and Deutsche Telekom.

Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, who leads Deutsche Telekom's towers business and was previously active within xRAN, says a broad objective is to separate the RAN control plane, which is responsible for signaling decisions, from the user plane, which carries traffic.

This disaggregation should allow operators to build more programmable and automated 5G RANs that can be activated and upgraded in a fraction of the time it would previously have taken, he says.

ORAN says it aims to maximize the use of common, off-the-shelf hardware and get rid of as much proprietary hardware as possible. Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group, points out ORAN is trying not only to virtualize baseband-processing functions but also to turn radio units into white boxes running open software.

Another objective is to bring artificial intelligence and machine learning tools into the back-end modules to support network automation.

So what are the cost objectives? Although it is not a publicly stated goal of ORAN, Jacobfeuerborn believes RAN costs must fall by around 50% to make widespread 5G rollout economically viable. RAN technology would currently account for about 70% of overall 5G spending, he estimates.

"Not all vendors will like that but we have to change the business models and drive costs down," he tells Light Reading. "We can't do the same with 5G as we did with 4G."

RAN virtualization has emerged as one of the hot topics at this year's Mobile World Congress, with several other initiatives also announced at this week's show.

On the vendor side, significantly, US equipment giant Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) dealt a blow to networks partner Ericsson with its launch yesterday of the Open vRAN initiative, which aims to bring further disaggregation and virtualization into the mobile access network domain. (See Cisco Lands One on Ericsson With Open vRAN Initiative.)


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Cisco's partners on that project include Altiostar, Aricent, Intel, Mavenir, Phazr, Red Hat and Tech Mahindra. It also has operator support in the form of Reliance Jio, India's newest and most aggressive player.

Jacobfeuerborn is certainly not worried about the proliferation of groups, though, evidently taking a "more hands make light work" attitude.

"I am completely relaxed about that," he says. "We just have to do it and get the architecture right."

Operators need to become more innovative and reclaim some of the R&D initiative they have ceded to vendors in recent decades, Jacobfeuerborn says. "In the 1970s the innovation was done by operators but then given to vendors and now it is coming back a bit," he says.

"There is much more close cooperation," he adds, pointing out that vendors will be invited to participate in ORAN.

Even so, there are still many unresolved questions about RAN virtualization. For one thing, while it has been a talking point for several years, there appears to have been limited progress on addressing some of the technological challenges so far, including by the former xRAN and C-RAN groups.

There is also a concern that if operators virtualize their radio access networks and move baseband processing functions on to X86 servers in data centers, they will need to install a lot of fiber to support the "fronthaul" connections between those different network elements.

As national incumbents busily investing in fiber, the highest-profile ORAN members perhaps have less to worry about on that front than other players.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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