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open RAN

What to expect from the O-RAN Alliance in 2022

The O-RAN Alliance plans to make its initial batch of standards more formal by passing them through the ETSI standards organization this year, according to AT&T's Paul Smith – one of the operator's key executives working in the O-RAN Alliance.

"I think, all in all, we've made a lot of good progress so far," said Smith, who is director MTS - network analytics & automation at AT&T Labs and co-chair of O-RAN's WG1, a group that handles much of the alliance's core work on open radio access networks (RANs), including network architecture, network slicing and use cases.

Smith added, however, that the best is yet to come from the alliance. He made his comments this week at Light Reading's spring 2022 Open RAN Digital Conference.

"This is becoming an actual standard that the industry is working toward, which I think is really important," Smith said of the O-RAN Alliance's first batch of ETSI specifications. ETSI, an international association, handles all kinds of telecom specifications, from SIM cards to satellites.

Further, Smith said the O-RAN Alliance plans to significantly expand its testing and integration efforts – a key element of the association's overall goal of making interoperable networking components. He said the alliance currently counts six Open Testing and Integration Centers (OTICs), which provide open and impartial working environments for open RAN vendors. Four are in Europe, while one is in Taiwan and one is in China. Smith said the alliance expects to open more centers this year, including one in North America, though he declined to specify where they would be located.

A move into North America is noteworthy considering Dish Network – which is building an open RAN 5G network in the US – recently joined the O-RAN Alliance's board of directors. The alliance now counts more than 30 operator members.

(Source:  dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)
(Source: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

Hitting the big time

Smith's outlook on open RAN is informed by context and perspective. At AT&T, he has been working on the technology since it was incubated inside the xRAN Forum. The xRAN Forum merged with the C-RAN Alliance to form the O-RAN Alliance in 2018, at a time when the technology was considered unlikely to be widely adopted. Since then, the open RAN trend has not only gathered significant commercial steam, but also has captured the imagination of regulators across the globe hoping to foster the development of domestic 5G equipment suppliers.

Today, thanks to operators like Vodafone and Rakuten, open RAN already accounts for a small but significant part of the global mobile networking marketplace, according to research and consulting firm Dell'Oro Group. Further, the firm now predicts that open RAN will account for around 15% of the overall 2G to 5G RAN market by 2026 – an increase from its prior guidance.

That's noteworthy considering open RAN promises to separate RAN components into interoperabie pieces, thus allowing different suppliers to connect their products together like Lego blocks. Such an approach represents a sea change to traditional, classical RAN architecture, which is typically supplied solely by a single big vendor like Samsung, Huawei, Nokia or Ericsson.

Moving into a new year

Smith said the O-RAN Alliance is in the midst of taking a new approach to the market, in order to speed up the adoption of its specifications. He said that during 2021 the association shifted from a bottom-up to a top-down approach to its standards and efforts.

"It's really critical because it focuses us on what's important," he said of the group's new approach.

He also said the alliance will continue to work closely with other, related standards associations. Along those lines, the O-RAN Alliance and the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) inked a liaison agreement in 2020.

Smith added that the O-RAN Alliance is working on ways to develop specifications more quickly, including a specification that would be able to handle RAN accelerators. "We have to have a standardized API [application programming interface] to the accelerator functions," he said.

Finally, he said the O-RAN Alliance is also hard at work on a management platform that will allow established operators like AT&T to add open RAN components to their traditional, classical network designs. "It's critical that you start with a management plane," he said.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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