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open RAN

Open RAN has a 2G Achilles' heel

Old but essential networks are threatening an open RAN upset. The fashionable technology concept promises to inject competition into a mobile infrastructure market dominated by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia. Yet few of the challengers bring support for 2G and 3G. Without it, operators cannot disconnect their traditional suppliers.

That means they would have to run two parallel networks – an open RAN system for newer technologies and a traditional one for the legacy. Costs would spiral, says John Strand, the CEO of Danish advisory firm Strand Consult. "The rental cost to tower companies for sites and energy consumption is already high and would be even higher with a second network on the same site," he says.

The problem is acute for operators that have used "single RAN" technology to support all the different generations on one hardware platform. An operator with a separate platform for the legacy could retain 2G and 3G while substituting open RAN for the newer Gs. With single RAN, replacement would be much harder.

Vodafone UK alerted reporters to the issue at a recent press conference. It has picked South Korea's Samsung as the main supplier for a 2,500-site deployment, intended to replace a traditional system provided by Huawei. But Samsung does not bring support for 3G, which is still used by millions of Vodafone customers. That leaves Vodafone with two choices: hold back until it can finally switch off 3G, or run Samsung alongside Huawei for several years.

Samsung did not even have a 2G product last year. Operators blamed this shortcoming when asked by a parliamentary committee why it could not substitute for Huawei. The South Korean vendor appears to have glued a 2G feature to its offer in a jiffy, but other vendors including Altiostar and JMA Wireless have neither 2G nor 3G in their open RAN portfolios.

This could explain why Altiostar has shown up in relatively few networks outside Dish in America and Rakuten (its owner) in Japan. Builders of greenfield networks, neither of those companies has any interest in legacy technology. But the same cannot be said of Telecom Italia, which is using JMA Wireless as an open RAN vendor in the cities of Faenza and Saluzzo.

Even if Telecom Italia can retire 3G quickly, 2G looks indispensable. It is still needed for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and remains the only technology option for global roaming. Ditch it and Telecom Italia would not be able to service visitors from emerging markets with cheap handsets. Some operators might not care. Regulators probably would.

Not trivial

While Telecom Italia has not acknowledged this 2G problem, and did not respond to an email inquiry, Germany's Deutsche Telekom has voiced concern. "The goal is to have/include multi-standard radio units that support 2G and 3G as well as 4G/5G," said Rüdiger Kunze, Deutsche Telekom's head of cost engineering, standards and process services, on a webinar this week. "This is not trivial, given legacy management systems."

Quite. Not one of the big RAN vendors currently offers an open RAN product that provides support for 2G and 3G. Today, neither Ericsson nor Huawei provides any kind of open RAN technology. And while Nokia boasts an open RAN portfolio, a spokesperson for the Finnish company says it does not cover 2G and 3G.


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Among the open RAN software specialists, only Mavenir and Parallel Wireless have advertised support for 2G and 3G. Parallel Wireless has long regarded this as a crucial advantage. But Mavenir plugged the hole as recently as September last year when it bought ip.access, a UK-based company with 2G and 3G technologies in its portfolio.

The lack of vendor options must bother telco executives for whom open RAN is about diversifying the supplier market. Scott Petty, Vodafone's chief digital and information officer, thinks governments could help by setting firm timelines for technology switch-off. "If the government set horizons for when 3G is shut down, 2G is shut down, then the whole industry can align behind that."

Certainty would aid planning and investment, he says. But if vendors are ignoring 2G because they believe it will soon disappear, they might want to reconsider.

Update: JMA Wireless contacted Light Reading after this article was published to say it now has a 2G software stack.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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