The Future's Bright, the Future's ORAN
An industry group that aims to bring more open technologies into the radio access network to help reduce costs and spur innovation has added another seven operators to its membership list and now features the world's biggest service providers internationally.
The ORAN Alliance, unveiled at this year's Mobile World Congress in February, will be hard to ignore after it today announced that Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) (India), China Telecom, KT Corp. (South Korea), Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel) (OTC: SGTJY), SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) (South Korea), Telefónica (Spain) and Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS) (Australia) have now joined its ranks. (See Major Telcos Pool Efforts to Slash 5G RAN Costs.)
Co-founded by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) (USA), China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL), Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) (Germany), NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) (Japan) and Orange (NYSE: FTE) (France), the association is taking aim at the closed nature of the radio access network (RAN).
Despite former standardization efforts, some of the interfaces that connect different parts of the RAN prevent operators from using multiple vendors. By making these interfaces more open, or developing alternatives, operators believe they can spur RAN competition, lower network costs and make RAN virtualization much easier.
The initiative is not entirely new, bringing together a group known as the xRAN Forum, which featured many of the operators now in the ORAN Alliance, and another called the C-RAN Alliance, led by China Mobile. Besides the ORAN Alliance's founder members, SK Telecom, Telefónica and Telstra were already xRAN Forum members.
The question now is whether its growing momentum persuades some of the biggest RAN vendors to join the ORAN Alliance. While a more open RAN might seem to threaten their business models, Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) is already a member of the xRAN Forum and others might see an opportunity in participation, and more danger in trying to resist the pressure from service provider customers. (See Nokia Seizes Open RAN Initiative as Ericsson Holds Back.)
Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research business, expects Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) to become involved in the not-too-distant future. "Operators will push Ericsson to do it and I don't think Ericsson is philosophically against it," he previously told Light Reading. "I expect them to participate." (See Why Resistance to the Open RAN May Crumble.)
That would still leave a question mark over the involvement of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763), the Chinese vendors that compete against Ericsson and Nokia outside the US market.
What makes the ORAN Alliance particularly interesting is the recent development of a new "fronthaul" interface by the xRAN Forum. According to Brown, this could eventually become a 3GPP-sanctioned alternative to CPRI, the interface used to connect radios to baseband processors.
During a conversation with Light Reading earlier this month, Arun Bansal, the head of Ericsson's business in Europe and Latin America, acknowledged the proprietary nature of CPRI and said this meant that Ericsson's baseband customers had to use its radios, or radios compatible with the Ericsson system.
Besides announcing new members, the ORAN Alliance has named Andre Fuetsch, the president of AT&T Labs, as chair and Alex Choi, the senior vice president of strategy and technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom, as operations officer.
It has also established seven working groups, one of which will be dedicated to the further development of an open fronthaul interface.
The other working groups will consider: Use cases and architecture; the A1 interface; the E2 interface; stack reference design along with the F1/V1/E1/X2 interface; cloudification and orchestration; and "white box" hardware.
With the emergence of a white box market for radios, operators would ideally be able to purchase radios off the shelf and use them with any vendor's RAN system.
However, Brown cautions against expectations this will happen quickly or smoothly. "One thing that is really important is market forces," he said in comments posted on Light Reading's website. "Standards specs and sentiment are just one part. Perhaps more difficult will be to actually create a market for open RAN. Operators talk about white box radio, but where are the suppliers?"
That is a question the ORAN Alliance will undoubtedly be trying to answer.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading