TIP admits open RAN integration is fiendish but hopes to fix it
Since it gate-crashed the country club of telecom technology in early 2016, Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has been on a mission to upset establishment figures like Ericsson and Huawei. Each vendor's network products usually unite all hardware and software, forcing telco customers to be faithful to that supplier. TIP wants to play homewrecker, substituting technological free love for monogamy. Now it's realizing the drawbacks.
Slides circulated at a TIP board meeting, and subsequently obtained by Light Reading, highlight the difficulty for telcos of building radio access networks that come from not one vendor's system but a busy harem of suppliers. This "open RAN disaggregated model," states TIP, "provides choice of suppliers but creates inefficiencies in integration, validation and lifecycle management."
Systems integration is arguably the biggest headache for open RAN, an industry effort to combine products from multiple suppliers at the same mobile site. In support of that effort, a telco-led group called the O-RAN Alliance has developed new and more interoperable interfaces between different parts of the network. These would supposedly allow one company's distributed unit (DU) baseband software to speak instantly with another's radio unit (RU), for instance. But it turns out not to be that simple.
"The standard is still too open and so you need this type of systems integration work between the RU and the DU," said Tommi Uitto, the head of mobile for TIP member Nokia, during an interview with Light Reading earlier this year. "Practically, it means that if you disaggregate the basestation then someone has to reaggregate it. And there is a cost with reaggregation because it is not plug and play."
Uitto's criticisms have been dismissed by some open RAN supporters as the all-too-predictable griping of a big vendor that stands to lose out if open RAN takes off. But Mavenir, a smaller company in the vanguard of open RAN, has also recently acknowledged the absence of plug-and-play simplicity. CEO Pardeep Kohli thinks the industry is still two or three years away from it. Last week, his company announced it had raised $155 million in funding with the goal of becoming an "end-to-end" supplier, able to source and integrate components as Ericsson, Huawei or Nokia would do.
Taking the sub- out of sub-optimal
TIP's internal slides show a recognition of the problem, too. "Currently mobile operators are forced to trade off choice of supply vs process efficiency," it said in one bullet. Its answer appears to be a new initiative dubbed the "Open RAN Innovation Hub." The aim is to move the industry past the "sub-optimal disaggregated" model of today, where each operator would carry out a full RAN system validation. With the hub, such validation would be coordinated by TIP, said the organization, taking the sub- out of sub-optimal.
"TIP is planning to set up the Open RAN Innovation Hub to accelerate deployments and validate open RAN solutions against specific use cases for the mobile operators," said Kristian Toivo, TIP's executive director, in emailed remarks. "TIP will be opening up the innovation hub to like-minded companies that want to drive open RAN initiatives."
A source close to the matter says TIP would dip into funds of $50 million provided by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to build the testing capability. That money forms a part of the $1.5 billion the NTIA is setting aside for open RAN funding under the much bigger $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law earlier this year.
TIP representatives acknowledged talks with the NTIA had taken place but said there had been no formal bid for any funds while the NTIA sets up a mechanism that would allow this to happen. The plan is to submit grant applications early next year, with approved funds likely to be released later in 2023.
How the initiative would work in practice remains unclear at this stage. If the ambition is partly to reduce the industry's reliance on third-party systems integrators, the open RAN opportunity for the likes of India's Tech Mahindra is likely to shrink. But various other companies have already made investments in testing and integration facilities as well as systems integration expertise. Orange and Vodafone are among European operators to have set up facilities. Besides Mavenir, Japan's NEC and Rakuten are also now pitching themselves as systems integrators. TIP's initiative could threaten those activities.
A TIP hub would probably not end the need for systems integration, either – merely consolidate some efforts and hand TIP control of them. Given the differences between operators, a one-size-fits-all approach would not be easy to find, even if the hub's work takes some pain out of the systems integration process. Among other things, it could address the current shortage of IT labor that bedevils the industry. With TIP taking responsibility, an operator might not have to worry so much about finding and investing in IT staff of its own.
Ultimately, there seems likely to be a trade-off between openness and plug-and-play functionality. Fully open specs need to come with a long checklist of options that could necessitate greater effort when integrating separate technologies. Something more plug and play is probably also more rigid, even if it makes for an easier jigsaw to assemble. Expect systems integrators – wherever they ply their trade – to be needed for a long time yet.
- Open RAN mania for systems integration could end badly
- Mavenir raises more cash to sell 'end-to-end' systems
- Tech Mahindra keeps eye on open RAN prize as costs mount
- Open RAN is falling a long way short of its promise
- Open RAN specialists are a dying breed
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading