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open RAN

AT&T to take open RAN indoors first

One of AT&T's top networking executives said that the company is now requiring all of its hardware vendors to support open RAN specifications.

"It's a requirement to adopt the O-RAN specification. This isn't just with one [vendor]. It's with all the ones we work with," Andre Fuetsch, EVP and chief technology officer at AT&T, said in an interview on the "Week with Roger" podcast from analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. Fuetsch said AT&T plans to start its open RAN deployment with indoor networks first because they're often relatively simple to install and operate.

"Those are our first implementations here, will be indoor and in-building," he said of AT&T's foray into open RAN. "If you have issues [with an indoor network] you can always fall back to the outdoor network." After AT&T is comfortable with its in-building usage of open RAN technology, Fuetsch said AT&T's next stop will be in outdoor deployments in rural areas. "The reason here is because it's simpler," Fuetsch explained of rural, outdoor deployments of open RAN.

Finally, Fuetsch said AT&T would use open RAN in its dense, urban network deployments, which are often more complicated in terms of the spectrum and antenna technologies involved. "We have to blend this and introduce O-RAN in incremental modules," he said of AT&T's graduated approach to installing open RAN equipment into its existing network. He said the company is looking to have the "right blending" as it slowly shifts from traditional RAN designs to open RAN technology.

Eyeing the RIC

"You don't just go full open," he explained, adding that "it's going to take some time."

Open RAN technology promises to allow operators to separate their radio access network equipment into discrete elements that can be mixed and matched among a variety of vendors, thanks to open RAN application programming interfaces (APIs). That's a much different approach from traditional networks, which are often supplied solely by one vendor and do not sport open interfaces for other vendors to snap into.

AT&T's move to open RAN is largely driven by the operator's desire to integrate new suppliers into its network. Fuetsch specifically called out the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) function inside a wireless network as an element that AT&T hopes to open up to third party vendors. "It gives us optionality," he said of open RAN in general.

Fuetsch's comments are noteworthy considering Vodafone on Monday announced its first batch of open RAN vendors. Samsung and NEC will supply radios while Dell will supply servers. Wind River, Keysight Technologies and Capgemini Engineering were also named as suppliers.

O-RAN within the year

AT&T, though, is no stranger to the open RAN movement. The company was a chief backer of the xRAN Forum, which in 2018 merged with China Mobile's C-RAN Alliance to form the O-RAN Alliance. That's the association that has been setting initial specifications for open RAN interfaces. Further, AT&T's first commercial open RAN deployments, at least those that are indoors, might not be too far off. AT&T recently told the FCC it plans to begin adding open RAN-compliant equipment into its network "within the next year."

That puts AT&T on roughly the same timeframe as Verizon. Verizon's SVP Adam Koeppe told Light Reading earlier this year that the operator's 5G hardware vendors – Ericsson and Samsung – will begin supplying open RAN-compliant equipment starting later this year.

The shift by AT&T and Verizon toward open RAN coincides with their plans to spend billions of dollars over the next few years constructing networks in their new C-band spectrum holdings. Such spectrum is critical to the 5G industry in the US because it supports communications that are geographically broad and speedy. AT&T and Verizon both hope to cover hundreds of millions of Americans with C-band transmissions within the next few years.

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

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