Open RAN may not be ready for prime-time telco networks just yet, but its potential is attracting Tier 1 operator interest and vendor involvement, with Cohere Technologies the latest to nails its colors to the disaggregated radio access network mast.
And the vendor, based in Santa Clara, California, has a wireless network enhancement proposition likely to excite existing O-RAN supporters and attract further service provider interest.
Cohere had previously been pitching hardware-based fixed wireless access gear to network operators, with little success. A change of strategy came soon after the appointment of wireless technology industry veteran Ray Dolan, who joined as CEO in October 2018 and scoped out the market's interest in Cohere at MWC 2019 last February.
Feedback from that event, plus market trends, led Dolan to focus the company's efforts on software development and, with the help of seasoned marketing chief Ronny Haraldsvik (who worked with Dolan at Flarion Technologies at the turn of the century), put itself at the heart of O-RAN initiatives.
That revamp has paid off, Dolan tells Light Reading, as the company is now engaged with some big names in the telco cloud market and major network operators he's hoping to be able to reveal names and project specifics soon to prove "we are not just a science project."
So what might be attracting the interest of any big names? It's Cohere's Delay Doppler-based channel detection, estimation and prediction technology for beamforming, which Dolan claims can be used to deliver standards-based enhancements to wireless broadband connections in 4G, 5G and even WiFi networks using existing radio access network infrastructure and devices/handsets.
And that technology is now a software module that can be integrated into existing radio access network systems or colocated in an x86-based server and connected via defined interfaces. Cohere notes that, within a cloud RAN architecture, its code can run as an app on the element dubbed the near real-time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC).
Dolan believes the ability to enable beamforming in an alternative way one that does not rely on integrated systems embedded in incumbent radio access network systems is quickening pulses at network operators.
"Currently, 5G offers only about 20% more capacity than 4G," says Dolan. "But the radio is not where the magic is [the magic is] in the beamforming and you can't do that efficiently with TDD [time division duplex] because currently it's all done by the likes of Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and Samsung at the cell site. Cohere's technology can be deployed in the cloud and enables the spatial replication of radios," giving operators a more flexible and efficient alternative. "We believe we can double network capacity initially significantly more as more antennas are added," says Dolan.
"What's exciting people is the realization of the big gains that spatial replication can deliver," adds the CEO. "And this can be deployed in the [network edge] cloud that really opens up the O-RAN opportunities." Dolan explains that it's possible to enable beamforming using cloud-based tools because Cohere's technology gives the system 100 milliseconds to set up the real-time beam, whereas in current TDD architectures it only has 10 microseconds and so can only be processed locally.
Cohere has set up test scenarios to show how its software can boost capacity and enable beamforming to multiple devices in a single cell: The company stated in its recent press release that its technology has been "successfully deployed inside an Intel FlexRAN architecture with third-party Layer 2/3 and Evolved Packet Core (EPC) solutions, and also within a Cloud RAN platform."
But Dolan knows that such demonstrations can only do so much to persuade the market that this is something worth exploring. "Without operator support we are just a science project, but that will be addressed soon we are looking to do at least three major theaters that turn into PoCs [proofs of concept] this year," he states confidently.
Such recognition would certainly go a long way to giving Cohere the initial credibility it will need to open doors and be taken seriously by the mobile broadband ecosystem. "At this point we only have Cohere's word for it," says Heavy Reading principal analyst Gabriel Brown. "We need to see it in practice and have better information from trusted and reputable third parties such as operators," he added.
But Brown also believes that Cohere's proposition is "really interesting" in two key ways.
"It's looking to exploit the spatial domain, which is unexplored in wireless performance compared with time and frequency domains, so that in itself makes it interesting," says the analyst. "Then the way it is positioned as part of an open RAN architecture is interesting, particularly in relation to the near real-time RIC it is going to improve the performance of an open RAN platform," adds Brown, noting that, in general, the open RAN architecture is "a great way to introduce new innovation" to the mobile network ecosystem.
So 2020 looks like it could be make or break for the new-look Cohere. And if things go well? What then? Dolan doesn't want to discuss that at the moment: Cohere is a small company, only about 20 staff "but growing," says the CEO, who adds that the company has just closed some financing from "VCs and a strategic investor, but we are not sharing details we are funded into next year."
So Cohere has the rest of 2020 to make its mark, but there's hardly been a better time to be associated with the open RAN movement, as more and more operators consider alternative ways to build out their next generation networks and break free from the vendor lock-in scenario that's staring them in the face right now.
Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading