Open Conflict Over Open RAN
It's just not cricket
But Ericsson and Huawei refused to play ball, he says. They naturally viewed Option 7 as a threat to their market dominance and did not want to embrace it. "Ericsson stopped the whole discussion about Option 7 in the 3GPP and totally blocked it," says Baker. "Ericsson and Huawei controlled what went into the 3GPP."
Alain Mourad, a director of engineering at R&D specialist InterDigital Inc. (Nasdaq: IDCC), is equally scathing. "This is what the vendors did not want to happen because they would be losing in business," he told Light Reading during a recent company event attended by analysts and reporters. "So what they have done is say we'll move a bit from CPRI but emphasize those [split] options that would require an additional box."
Moving a bit from CPRI, as Mourad puts it, meant designing a successor called E-CPRI. But that is not radically different from CPRI, says the InterDigital man, and certainly not about to usher in new RAN competition.
Of course, neither Mavenir Systems Inc. nor InterDigital is an impartial observer. Mavenir is trying to establish itself in the RAN as an open alternative to Ericsson and Huawei. Long accused of being a patent troll, InterDigital has previously fought Ericsson over intellectual property. Separately, it was this week reported by the Economist to have been "mauled" in royalty-related antitrust disputes in China.
Ericsson does not deny that standards bodies decided not to proceed with the option Mavenir favored. But it says there were good reasons behind that decision. "It was the conclusion of the 3GPP working group at the time that they wanted 5G to be open to different identified lower-layer split options, and that the detailed standardization of this interface targeting one split is limiting, since it will lock down the functionality for an area (active antenna systems) that is currently undergoing large innovation and development," it said in a statement emailed to Light Reading. "Hence, there is a risk that this leads to a sub-optimal and costlier 5G system."
As a result, the 3GPP agreed to park this work item, Ericsson explains, and focus on the 5G new radio (NR) interface and core network options. Specifications for NR technology were frozen at the end of 2017 and commercial 5G services are now appearing -- much sooner than anyone had originally expected.
Huawei was approached by Light Reading but at the time of publication had not responded to the criticisms leveled by Mavenir and InterDigital or answered questions about its interest in open RAN developments.
Nevertheless, several companies, including some of the world's biggest telcos, did go outside the 3GPP to work on a CPRI alternative. Formed in late 2016, the xRAN Forum published its first specification in early 2018, shortly before it merged with China's C-RAN Alliance to become today's O-RAN Alliance. It now includes at least one Tier 1 operator from just about every part of the world.
Baker, who has been heavily involved with the development and promotion of the xRAN specification, says it tackles the ambiguities found in CPRI and should allow one vendor's baseband gear to function with another's radios. "Mavenir has its own BBU [baseband unit] and more than ten partners working on white box radios," he says. His prediction is that white boxes could eventually account for between 20% and 30% of the entire RAN market.
Next page: Resistance may be futile