The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) announced it will join the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the O-RAN Alliance in working on specifications designed to separate hardware and software elements in mobile radio access networks (RANs).
And if that's not enough complexity for you, here are a few more acronyms related to the ONF's new initiative: The group said it plans to create a Software Defined Radio Access Network (SR-RAN) project to develop an open source nRT-RIC (near real-time Radio Intelligent Controller) called the µONOS-RIC (pronounced "micro-ONOS-RIC") that the group said will be able to run "xApps" like policy control.
While that might sound like a lot of networking gobbledygook – and it certainly is – the upshot here is that ONF backers like AT&T, China Mobile and Deutsche Telekom are doing everything they can to move the entire "open RAN" space forward. That's noteworthy considering the open RAN trend – which generally involves breaking up vendors' tightly integrated hardware and software products into discrete, mix-and-matchable components – has significant implications not only for the 5G industry but also for the world's geopolitical footing.
Timon Sloane, VP of Ecosystem and Marketing for ONF, is aware of all this.
"Any disruption is an opportunity," he said.
However, Sloane said that ONF is working hard to make sure that its particular brand of disruption will benefit its big network operator backers. "We're not forking off open RAN," he said, explaining that ONF's work will build on standards established by the likes of the O-RAN Alliance and will be funneled back into groups like TIP for further iteration and development.
Sloane added that ONF's new move into the open RAN scene builds on its ten years of work to inject open source software into other elements of the telecom network. The group previously "helped invigorate innovations" in packet switching, optical transport and passive optical network.
The overall goal of the nonprofit – which is composed primarily of software engineers – is to force telecom vendors out of their rut by introducing new networking designs based on open source software, thus allowing operators to potentially obtain more flexible equipment at lower prices.
The stakes are high. For example, startup Lumina Networks recently announced it would shutter its operations in part because "the switch to open source did not take place at a pace anywhere close to the speed that would enable us to operate and grow our business." Former executives at the company also bemoaned a focus on profits over customer acquisition, among other missteps.
"That's a challenge for sure," Sloane said of Lumia's shutdown. But he said that open source technology in the telecom industry can lead to success as long as vendors "find the right business model."
Importantly, the ONF's new push into open RAN is supported by two RAN vendors, but not top-tier suppliers like Ericsson or Huawei. Sloane said Radisys and Sercomm will support the group's development of an open source nRT-RIC, likely as a way to ingratiate themselves with giant operators hoping to use the open RAN trend to ease their reliance on the market's few remaining top-tier equipment vendors.
Indeed, Sloane said the ONF is basically working to "push where we need to" so that the open RAN trend doesn't get bogged down by bigger companies that are moving too slowly, possibly intentionally.
And Sloane acknowledges the many challenges that ONF and other groups face in open RAN. "We are used to that complexity," he said confidently.
And while that was certainly true of previous ONF focus areas like packet switching and passive optical networking, the open RAN trend compounds the complexity of technological innovation with the addition of geopolitical ramifications. That's because American officials are increasingly eyeing open RAN as a way to counter the rise of China and Huawei, the world's biggest vendor of mobile equipment by market share. Whether open RAN can play that kind of role remains to be seen, but it nonetheless shines a much brighter light on the ONF's latest set of acronyms.