Open up networks so competition will cut prices
24 July 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray
The open-source movement is moving in on the telecoms industry, including radio-access networks and network automation. Alan Burkitt-Gray looks at the powerful alliances of companies that hope to innovate networks and services through openness.
Using open-source equipment in mobile radio-access networks (RANs) could help to push costs down to half, according to a recent report. At the same time proponents of open-source software claim that their approach results in savings of $60 billion a year for consumers.
In the software area, open-source is decades ahead of the hardware business. Linux, a family of Unix-like operating systems, has been around since 1991. Today it runs in everything from thousands of servers to my Chromebook laptop, and the Android operating system in my Nokia- branded smartphone is a derivative of Linux. It’s everywhere in the telecoms industry.
But open-source hardware? That’s still to catch up. The reasons are unclear – though the logic behind its adoption is enormous.
First, though, why is so much hardware not open-source? That’s the real question – and the answer is, of course, to protect vendors. In other words, it’s anti-competitive.
Think about the light-bulb. An open- source standard, founded by Thomas Edison, called the Edison screw means that you can buy a standard light-bulb anywhere in the world and be confident it will fit. Think about batteries. In shops from Beijing to Buenos Aires you can buy AA and AAA batteries, and a limited number of other sizes. If you buy a torch in Brisbane or Bulawayo, you don’t have to source a proprietary battery.
It used to be the same with mobile phones. Now the industry has settled down to a couple of USB-based connectors plus Apple’s own variants. Openness provides choice and increases competition, thereby reducing prices for consumers.
In telecoms hardware, the industry is fighting back, and it is leading in the RAN sector – probably because the imminent arrival of 5G gives telcos’ chief technology officers an opportunity to think carefully about the future.
The move is being led by the O-RAN – open radio access network – Alliance, a grouping of some of the world’s most powerful mobile operators. Among them are AT&T and Verizon, the two biggest in the US; plus Sprint and Deutsche Telekom, which owns T-Mobile US and European variants of T-Mobile. There’s KT and SK Telecom from South Korea; Orange, Telefónica and TIM from Europe (as well as Deutsche Telekom). KDDI and NTT DoCoMo of Japan are members, as is Telstra from Australia. And both China Mobile and China Telecom.
That’s one of the best things about this open-source movement – it unites companies from across the world even if government authorities say they shouldn’t be talking.
This universality also applies to another open-source movement, the Open Networking Automation Platform (ONAP), which shelters under the wing of the Linux Foundation and brings together AT&T, China Mobile, Huawei and ZTE. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every time I list those four names as the major collaborators in a global telecoms project I want to paste it on the gateposts of the White House. This is an integrated industry and this is something to be proud of.
But back to O-RAN, which has a diverse range of vendor members. There’s Ciena, Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm, representing Scandinavia and the US; there’s Fujitsu, NEC and Samsung from east Asia; and also AsiaInfo, Boelink, CICT, Lenovo and ZTE – all from China. Not Huawei, for some reason.
The Alliance says that thanks to its work “an ecosystem of innovative new products is already emerging that will form the underpinnings of the multi-vendor, interoperable, autonomous, RAN, envisioned by many in the past, but only now enabled by the global industry-wide vision, commitment and leadership of O-RAN Alliance members and contributors”.
What difference will it make? Ideally you should in the future be able to buy RAN elements then plug them into your base station or small cell. They should fit together and work. Just like buying a light-bulb or phone charger and not worrying about connectors.
A UK-based market analysis firm Rethink Research says 5G “will change the shape of the cellular industry forever” and, while the traditional vendors are “mostly hoping to take a traditional and proprietary approach”, operators are “insisting that they break up the RAN into separate open functions, where every vendor offering can interoperate with every other product”.
In a report summary on open RAN, Caroline Gabriel of Rethink writes: “Operators hope that 5G will support an open, multivendor network with an enlarged supply chain and greater price competition and open innovation. This may always have been a goal, but it has not been easily achievable before. Indeed, in the 4G era, the supply chain has contracted considerably because of the consolidation of suppliers.”
Rethink talked to 76 tier-one operators about their plans for now until 2025. It believes the deployment cost of a 5G macro cell “will fall by 50% from now until 2022 if it is built around an open architecture”. The price of proprietary cells will still fall – but by 30%, not 50%.
Do also watch what the Facebook-backed Telecoms Infra Project (TIP) is doing. It wants to enable the industry to build RAN solutions “based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software- defined technology”, says TIP.
“Vendor-neutral hardware” means the sort of off-the-shelf computing kit that runs everything from cash machines and Microsoft Office to MRI scanners and nuclear submarines. Why is the telecoms industry so exceptional that vendors need to build their own hardware? The answer is that it isn’t.
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