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open RAN

Ericsson, Nokia pay open RAN lip service, but not much else

Both Nokia and Ericsson expressed plenty of support for open RAN technology in new comments to the FCC.

"Nokia remains a stalwart supporter of open RAN," Nokia boasted in its filing to the FCC, a response to the agency's ongoing open RAN proceeding. "Nokia does not merely participate in progressing O-RAN Alliance specifications; we lead all member companies in open RAN technical contributions to expeditiously publish the full range of specifications."

Ericsson too sought to highlight its own open RAN bona fides.

"Ericsson's Cloud RAN is a major step on the journey to a secure open RAN solution that meets the needs of US critical infrastructure," the company told the FCC. "It allows operators to run Ericsson RAN software using non-Ericsson open hardware and the third-party cloud stack (e.g., platforms provided by IBM / Red Hat Linux, HPE, Intel, and many others). Ericsson has every reason to ensure that the regulatory environment is not unfavorable to our own open RAN products."

But the companies' open RAN endorsements ended abruptly at the first hint of any government mandates or other requirements in support of open RAN.

Neutrality toward technology and nationality

"The best way for the commission to ensure the continued development of open networks is not to put its thumb on the scale," Ericsson argued.

"Using regulatory mechanisms to accelerate deployments of open RAN prior to parity with existing systems in feature richness, performance and security could in fact regress US network leadership and increase the digital divide," Nokia warned.

"The commission should continue to be technology neutral and allow individual service providers free rein over their network architecture choices."

Importantly, the debate is not just theoretical: Money is at stake. The FCC is currently evaluating exactly how open RAN equipment might be used in its $2 billion "rip and replace" program.

That program is designed to remove Huawei and ZTE equipment from US networks – Ericsson and Nokia would like to provide the replacement equipment, but so too do open RAN vendors like Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.

The topic is a tricky one for the two Nordic equipment vendors. Although both companies employ thousands of American workers, they're both headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from Washington, DC.

That's important considering US policymakers are loudly hoping that the open RAN trend will help nurture the creation of domestic 5G equipment suppliers. After all, 5G often sits alongside artificial intelligence and quantum computing as technology deemed critical to national defense and security amid tightening relations with China.

And that's why open RAN proponents cheered a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing the rise of US-based 5G software and hardware suppliers such as JMA Wireless, Airspan Networks, Altiostar, Mavenir, JMA and Parallel Wireless. The article carried the not-so-subtle headline "The US Is Back in the 5G Game."

Prime time or premature

Ericsson addressed that issue head-on in its new FCC filing: "Where we are headquartered does not in any way diminish our commitment to delivering high performing, secure and energy efficient network products to US operators," the company wrote.

Nokia offered a similar argument.

"We have 10,500 employees in the US. Our subsidiary, SAC Wireless, is the No. 1 turnkey network construction company in the United States – the literal 'boots on the ground' deploying US network infrastructure," the company wrote.

"While it is true that economic headwinds led to industry consolidation, US based network equipment jobs and US located R&D hubs did not evaporate simply because they were consolidated under a new parent company."

The real issue, according to both companies, is that open RAN is simply not ready for prime time.

"As of the end of the first quarter of 2021, commercially deployed 3GPP networks were serving 8 billion subscribers around the world, substantially fewer than 10 million of whom were served by open RAN networks," Ericsson wrote.

Both companies cited supporting comments from T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. For example, T-Mobile reiterated its relatively tepid attitude toward open RAN in its own recent filing to the FCC: "More work is required for open RAN development," the carrier argued.

"There is unanimity among the nationwide network providers that the task of ensuring new open RAN components are smoothly integrated into their networks will be a challenge," Nokia pointed out.

Free choice for a new paradigm

Both Nokia and Ericsson highlighted a number of specific areas – from security to cost – they said show the immaturity of open RAN. However, the companies aren't ambivalent to the technology: Both Nokia and Ericsson built their business by supplying the kinds of monolithic network designs that prevent the inclusion of new vendors.

Open RAN technology promises to break apart a wireless network into its various components, thereby allowing operators to mix and match equipment from a variety of vendors.

But Ericsson and Nokia also said they support US government programs designed to nurture the open RAN market.

"Nokia continues to urge that the commission and its US government partners promote demonstration beds, plugfests, innovation zones and the like to allow service providers to gain comfort with various open RAN components," the company wrote.

"The record demonstrates that such opportunities to put open RAN through its paces is not purely a matter of open RAN being new. As a general matter, testing is a critical aspect of introducing different components into an established network."

Ericsson agreed.

"The best way for the commission to ensure the continued development of open networks is not to put its thumb on the scale but to advance 5G's proliferation, remain technology neutral, support test beds and American participation in crucial standard-setting bodies, and allow eligible carriers to choose freely among trusted vendors as they participate in the commission's reimbursement program," the company wrote.

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

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