May 10, 2021
The software for open RAN has had a distinctly American flavor so far. Rare is the deployment or trial that does not involve Altiostar, Mavenir or Parallel Wireless, the US-headquartered baton twirlers of the open RAN movement. But a small Polish company called IS-Wireless hopes it can upset the routine.
Based near the capital city of Warsaw, IS-Wireless was founded way back in 2006 but spent most of its early years as a mobile technology research outfit, bolstered by funding from Europe's FP7 and Horizon 2020 initiatives. The development of its latest software-defined 4G and 5G products did not begin until 2016. A year later, IS-Wireless secured about $5 million in seed capital from various sources. With its staff of 50 employees, it is today part of open RAN's "Wave 2," says CEO Slawomir Pietrzyk.
Interest in the concept of open RAN has rocketed over the last couple of years, with analysts at Dell'Oro and Omdia now expecting it to account for a double-digit percentage of all radio access network sales by the mid-2020s. In most of today's mobile networks, software is screwed tightly into customized hardware and one vendor usually supplies everything. Open RAN aims to break this system apart. Ideally, it would mean any vendor's software would run with anyone else's hardware. Operators could use entirely different suppliers for radios and baseband, the main RAN components.
Figure 1: The new wave IS-Wireless CEO Slawomir Pietrzyk (right) pictured with Kamil Pluskwa-Dabrowski, the company's chief legal officer (left), and Robert Cieloch, its chief operating officer.
But why does open RAN need another yet another software developer? Partly, it seems, because of geopolitics. When several of Europe's largest operators clubbed together in January, urging European authorities to provide funding for local open RAN players, it was out of concern that most options today come from Asia or the US.
From a risk management perspective, Pietrzyk says it is not good that Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless all have their core development centers in India. "Indian developers are great, but from the US perspective it is putting all the eggs into one basket," he tells Light Reading. With its capabilities in central and eastern Europe, IS-Wireless can be a geographical alternative.
It is not just trying to be a me-too software developer with a different home, though. The firms Pietrzyk would categorize as Wave 1 open RAN players do not go far enough, he believes. "Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless are all great companies and were pioneers, but we think our design is better because it's future proof," he says. "This comes from the focus on 5G from day one, higher software granularity and readiness for network densification."
The advantage he claims for his own company would mean any RAN functionality could be more easily decoupled and run on either shared or dedicated resources, such as the AWS cloud or an operator's in-house servers. Among other things, this might aid the deployment of different "functional splits," which essentially describe the division of software labor between the radio and baseband units.
Most of the industry's attention is currently on a split defined by standards bodies as "Option 7.2," which would put most functions into baseband units and allow these to be aggregated more efficiently. The downside of Option 7.2 is that it would increase pressure on the fronthaul connection between the baseband and radio units. Without lots of fiber, operators might struggle.
Hence Pietrzyk's view that other splits, while less discussed today, will become important in the future. It is a gamble on the development of the market because few potential customers are talking about anything apart from Option 7.2, he concedes. "Right now, the market is perfect for Mavenir and Parallel Wireless," he says. "The market for us is a year or two years from now."
While US rivals might have something to say about Pietrzyk's claims, he is also one of the industry's strongest advocates of network densification. In his opinion, sprinkling coverage zones with access points would be a far better way to realize the high-capacity promise of 5G than via massive MIMO, an advanced radio technology about which Pietrzyk sounds downright hostile.
"I think massive MIMO adds complexity to the existing site," he says. "You really need to have your environment filled with access points and they don't have to be massive MIMO. They need to be cheap – half the price of the phone – and connected to a decent fronthaul, which in that case wouldn't have to be fiber."
Not big on massive MIMO
The question is whether any of this can be done economically. Pietrzyk, who previously worked for T-Mobile after completing a doctorate in wireless communications at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is optimistic, arguing that macro cells currently being deployed in cities will gradually fragment into smaller cells. The arrival in the market of specialist "towercos" like Cellnex, with plans to invest in new sites, will aid this densification, he reckons.
"Of course you can add capacity by having multiple transmissions realized by massive MIMO and higher-order modulations and increased spectral efficiency, but the largest contribution comes from network densification," he says. That belief seems partly to explain his software pitch. The more granular the software, the more versatile it would seem to be for different deployment scenarios. "You will need to have a much higher level of flexibility in deploying your software-defined RAN and will not have the comfort of placing a server wherever you want."
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But what of technology partners? IS-Wireless has been working on potential integration with radio units made by Ireland's Benetel, which lists Analog Devices and Marvell on its roster of chip suppliers. Besides reaching out to other manufacturers, it is in talks with IBM about opportunities in Poland, where telco and government connections could help Pietrzyk to land business. And outside Europe, a trial in Asia has already started, he says.
As it moves from behind-the-scenes development to commercialization, IS-Wireless is also looking to raise additional funds. "We are moving to raise up to $10 million in a Round A right now for covering two years of trials and proofs of concept and we already secured some funding for product development," says Pietrzyk.
Skeptics still doubt that small open RAN players can challenge the might of Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, companies that had a combined R&D budget of nearly $32 billion last year. But if open RAN delivers on its promise, it should also make size and financial resources matter less, giving startups a chance to compete.
Equally important is the evident desire of some operators to use alternatives to the usual suspects in the future. Supplier diversity is the new buzz term for governments and service providers alike. For IS-Wireless and its brethren, the technological and geopolitical winds are currently blowing in the right direction.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading
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