White Box Systems

White Box Doubts Keep Huawei on Outside of O-RAN Alliance

LONDON -- Huawei has no plans to join the O-RAN Alliance, an operator-led group working on more open radio access network (RAN) technologies, because it remains unconvinced of the benefits of "white box" radios, according to a senior executive at the Chinese vendor.

Peter Zhou, the chief marketing officer of Huawei's wireless product line, said the company's own research had revealed a huge performance gap between white boxes and traditional radio gear.

"There is a specific R&D team doing research on using white boxes with Intel CPUs [central processing units] in 4G basestations and the power consumption is ten times more," he said at Huawei's pre-MWC event in London today. "5G is [even] more complicated and an Intel CPU gives you a problem with jitter. In terms of existing Intel CPU technology, we haven't seen the possibility of using that with 5G basestations."

Telcos in the O-RAN Alliance are pushing for open interfaces that would allow them to use a mixture of suppliers and take advantage of standardized equipment in the RAN.

In a traditional mobile network an operator is tied to one vendor's system for its baseband technology -- which processes signals -- and the actual radio units. But the specifications developed by the O-RAN Alliance should theoretically allow baseband gear from a vendor such as Huawei to be used in conjunction with a white box radio -- essentially, an off-the-shelf hardware product.

Companies promoting white box technologies accuse Ericsson and Huawei of blocking progress in official standardization groups like ETSI and the 3GPP. The traditional vendors realize they would lose market share if white boxes became a viable option for telcos, these companies argue.

However, Ericsson became an official member of the O-RAN Alliance earlier this month, while Nokia has been involved with the association since the very beginning. That leaves Huawei as the only one of the big three kit vendors still on the outside.

Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research business, has been more sympathetic, pointing out that new entrants will naturally have a different perspective from "larger, systemically important vendors."

He has also drawn attention to the challenges that would surround a multivendor RAN featuring white box radios. "You need to match openness with stability," he told Light Reading during an earlier discussion. "Realistically, which operator is going to deploy in a mix-and-match way? Probably very few."

Nor does membership of the O-RAN Alliance mean Ericsson has suddenly embraced white boxes while Huawei remains dubious. The Swedish vendor has indicated that its focus inside the group will be on getting the RAN to communicate automatically with different network management systems.

The 3GPP decided not to proceed with specifications that would aid white box development, it previously told Light Reading, because of perceived risks this would lead to a "sub-optimal and costlier 5G system."

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"We haven't got the evidence that says these [white boxes] are really beneficial for the industry," said Zhou in London earlier today. "We have hesitated to join because if we do we may give the wrong message to the industry."

He also pointed out that Huawei is already supporting other goals of the O-RAN Alliance through its involvement with groups such as the Linux Foundation, whose ONAP initiative is aimed at tackling some of the interoperability issues in network orchestration.

"Huawei must be interested in what's going on, but so far its position is that the market for open RAN is small and that the performance of these systems will be inferior to its own integrated product," said Heavy Reading's Brown during earlier conversations about white box radios.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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