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Open RAN makes plenty of noise – but little progress – at MWC LA

LOS ANGELES – MWC LA – Collectively, the open RAN industry has a very clear message for attendees here at the MWC LA trade show: "I would encourage you to consider O-RAN as the only way forward," said Rabih Dabboussi, chief revenue officer of Rakuten Symphony, during a keynote presentation here.

"It's not a question of 'if,' it's a question of 'when,'" he said of open RAN technology in general.

And that affirmation, he said, leaves mobile network operators in the US and globally with just one question: "Will you be the lagger, or will you be a leader?"

But for many top operators in the US, the answer to that question is – at least so far – that they're content to be laggers.

Reticence from some

Executives from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon – the nation's three big 5G mobile network operators – all attended the MWC LA trade show, either via in-person or virtual presentations. And none offered any hint of interest in open RAN.

Indeed, the head of AT&T's ongoing $8 billion midband 5G network buildout, Mo Katibeh, expressly named Nokia and Ericsson as the operator's main vendors. "This will help support our C-Band spectrum deployment," he wrote in a blog on the company's website.

To be clear, both AT&T and Verizon have pledged to begin implementing open RAN technologies into their networks over the course of this year and next year. But neither company has provided any details about the effort.

And while there are rumors that at least one of those operators is testing equipment from an upstart open RAN vendor, so far AT&T and Verizon are sticking with the market's established, traditional suppliers: Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung.

But that may change, according to Rakuten's Dabboussi. He specifically pointed to the likes of Dish Network (a newcomer) and Telefónica (an incumbent) as examples of companies that are embracing open RAN technologies.

Thierry Maupilé, EVP of strategy and product management for Rakuten's Altiostar, said the open RAN industry is in the second phase of a broad evolution. He explained that the first phase involved new entrants like Rakuten and Dish embracing the technology. The second phase, he said, will include established, so-called "brownfield" operators moving to open RAN. He said the third phase would involve networks operated by enterprises.

Indeed, during a separate open RAN keynote presentation here, Vodafone's Francisco (Paco) Martín Pignatelli mostly agreed. "It's important that we create the right framework" for open RAN, he said. Vodafone is doing just that, having announced a plan to implement open RAN technologies across 2,500 sites. "It's going to be an exciting journey," he added.

But the Vodafone executive warned that the open RAN industry needs to do more work to fully mature, including ensuring that networking components from different vendors are fully interoperable. After all, that's a big part of the open RAN goal: To create interoperable components that would allow new vendors to slide into a network that has traditionally been supplied by just one monolithic vendor.

Steve Libbey, an exec with open RAN vendor Parallel Wireless, said that's exactly what's happening. He explained that the open RAN industry today is moving along the same path that the cable industry traveled more than 20 years ago. He explained that cable operators jointly began developing the DOCSIS specifications that allowed a variety of vendors to supply interoperable equipment. Now, open RAN vendors are hoping to do something similar in 5G.

"I think there's a bright future ahead," Libbey noted.

Rural support for open RAN

However, open RAN proponents so far still have few big victories to show for their efforts. For example, big 5G providers like T-Mobile have specifically spoken out against open RAN technologies, arguing that such technologies remain difficult to implement.

But that's not necessarily true, at least according to one tiny, US-based mobile network operator. Chip Damato, EVP of Inland Cellular, also spoke during a keynote presentation here at the MWC LA show. He said the operator serves around 41,000 customers across 140 cell sites in eastern Washington and North Central Idaho, and has been using open RAN equipment from Parallel Wireless for around two years.

"It actually turned out to be a fairly smooth process," Damato said of the operator's shift to open RAN. Broadly, he said the move helped reduce Inland Cellular's overall capital expenses by 40%. "O-RAN was almost a necessity for us," he added, noting the difficulties small operators face in the US market.

Broadly, open RAN "gave us a lot more control over our destiny," Damato explained.

However, that argument has so far not yet shifted the stance of any major US network operator. Instead, executives from the likes of AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile spent their time at MWC discussing the new services and applications they expect to provide with 5G – from speedy smartphone connections to private wireless networks – and did not show any interest in shifting to different networking technologies.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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