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Telcos didn't need open RAN to avoid a Nordic duopoly

With or without open RAN, several big Asian vendors led by South Korea's Samsung are providing an increasingly viable alternative to Huawei.

Iain Morris

November 3, 2022

5 Min Read
Telcos didn't need open RAN to avoid a Nordic duopoly

Before the US-led backlash against Huawei, the world's big telco groups never seemed that worried about supplier diversity. They apparently voiced no objections when Nokia bought Alcatel-Lucent in 2016, even applauding a deal that shrank the number of big vendors. And why not? The planet makes do with three big public clouds. An island constantly harassed by China monopolizes the production of advanced chips. A radio access network (RAN) market dominated by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia did not look unusual in such a bonkers, oligopolistic world.

Then Huawei got itself banned from several countries and cut off from important technologies, and the prospect of a Nordic duopoly sent top executives like Vodafone boss Nick Read into a flap. Insisting there were no obvious alternatives to Ericsson and Nokia, they backed a fledgling concept called open RAN. The idea was to combine specialists from different parts of the RAN, companies largely overlooked when operators were buying all these pre-integrated bits from one big vendor. Open RAN interfaces were supposed to make aligning these specialists much easier.

The message was lost on some Americans, including the country's current president, who seemed to think open RAN would produce an American Huawei. If the C-suite desire was to avoid a duopoly, open RAN also looks unnecessary. South Korea's Samsung already existed as a vendor of pre-integrated bits. Its lack of 2G and 3G goodies had put a brake on its growth. But operators are now euthanizing 3G, and Samsung is plugging its 2G hole.

Figure 1: Vodafone boss Nick Read backed open RAN as Huawei fell out of favor. (Source: Vodafone) Vodafone boss Nick Read backed open RAN as Huawei fell out of favor.
(Source: Vodafone)

Besides Ericsson and Nokia, Samsung has been the chief beneficiary of Huawei swap-outs. Even as Vodafone lauds open RAN, most of its UK work to replace the Chinese vendor has gone to Samsung, which is also being primed for a future Vodafone rollout in Germany.

Vodafone's technical team would no doubt resent the charge that they are leaning heavily on Samsung. Their virtualized UK deployment features a long list of suppliers, including Dell (servers), Wind River (cloud technology) and NEC (radios). But virtualization offers jobs to additional vendors without necessarily making a network more open. And Samsung provides both RAN software and radios, the most important parts. The original case for open RAN was about using software from one supplier with radios from another.

In fairness, Vodafone aims to make Samsung's software sync with NEC's radios next year. Samsung, then, needs to show support for open RAN interfaces, and those will mean a bit of it could be swapped out – just like Huawei – at any time. "What is happening with Huawei should never happen again," said Yago Tenorio, Vodafone's network architecture director. "Imagine Samsung goes belly-up. You can change it for Nokia and carry on with your life."

Systems integrator lock-in and other worries

A swap-out would obviously be cheaper and less onerous if it meant replacing only radios or baseband software and not the whole shebang. But the more suppliers in the mix, the more complicated the network could look.

Neil McRae, outgoing chief architect at BT, reckons adding suppliers usually adds cost. And who does an operator go to when the cause of a problem is hard to identify? Relying on a systems integrator risks a new kind of dependency. DIY means higher opex.

The easiest solution is probably to buy most products from a single, dependable vendor unlikely to suffer Huawei's fate. Compatibility with open RAN specifications will probably be written into contracts, but it will not make a huge difference. Integration remains fiendish regardless. Provided there are options besides just Ericsson and Nokia, the telco CEOs and CFOs fretting about a Nordic duopoly will be content.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

Fortunately for them, Samsung is not the only company now touting a full lineup of RAN products. NEC, bolstered by its 5G radio work for Rakuten in Japan, has added baseband software, service management and orchestration, and systems integration skills to its catalog. On its website, local rival Fujitsu advertises an "end-to-end" portfolio of radios, baseband and network automation software, and systems integration expertise. Not so much open RAN specialists, then, as Japan's twin answers to Ericsson.

Unsurprisingly, Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC were recently ranked by Dell'Oro, a market research company, as the three vendors that have gained the most from open RAN so far. Meanwhile, the specialists that open RAN was supposed to nurture are barely in evidence outside the network of Dish, a US operator struggling to hold its Frankenstein's monster of RAN body parts together.

The next question is how many "end-to-end" players the RAN market can support. The years of consolidation would suggest even a handful is too many, and telcos seem desperate to cut spending. Open RAN evangelists still dream of a market bustling with suppliers. But for the telco decision makers, more than two big ones is conceivably enough.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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