Nokia goes to open RAN as operators look for alternatives

Nokia goes to open RAN as mobile operators look for alternatives to Huawei

08 July 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Nokia has announced that it plans to use open systems in its radio network – the first such move by a major vendor at a time when smaller equipment makers are putting their hopes in open ecosystems.

The Finnish vendor said that will start offering open radio access network (O-RAN) solutions this year, with a full suite of O-RAN interfaces due in 2021.

Tommi Uitto (pictured), president of mobile networks at Nokia, said: “Nokia is committed to leading the open mobile future by investing in open RAN and cloud RAN solutions with the aim of enabling a robust telecom ecosystem with strong network performance and security.”

The move is likely to find support among mobile network operators, which are looking for ways to avoid being locked in to a limited number of vendors for their RANs – especially, perhaps, Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE.

That traditional strategy, of aligning with one or two main RAN vendors, has been thrown into confusion by US action against Huawei, which has made many operators uncertain of the security of their future supply chain.

Only last weekend John Sawers, the former head of MI6, the UK’s intelligence service, warned that the US ban on companies supplying technology to Huawei “mean that reliable non-Chinese suppliers to Huawei can no longer work with the company. UK intelligence services can therefore no longer provide the needed assurances that Chinese-made equipment is still safe to use in the UK’s telecoms network.”

Operators have been able to select equipment based on industry-standard IT hardware for their core networks – from companies such as Ciena, Cisco and Juniper – but they haven’t had that option for the RAN.

Mobile companies have also seen the disappearance of many RAN vendors from the market – such as Alcatel, Lucent and Siemens, all of which have been absorbed into Nokia; and, in previous years, Motorola, Nortel and others.

Hence, there has been a gradual recognition that O-RAN offers a possible solution, interchangeable kit from a number of vendors.

Parallel Wireless has been one of the pioneers of O-RAN. CEO Steve Papa told Capacity that the company he founded eight years ago is building equipment capable of delivering all mobile generations at once, using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. “You need to be all-G to pull this off,” he said. “We’re working with operators around the world. We have live 2G, 3G and 4G networks.” Parallel Wireless is “on the 3GPP roadmap” – the organisation that created 4G standards and is now doing the same for 5G.

O-RAN is not suitable for all situations, said Papa. “Mainly in rural areas,” he said. As the market builds up, it will add more advanced features – for working in denser networks with more users. “It takes more time to get these right.”

Parallel Wireless has built a “1,000-site network for Telefónica in Peru”, he said. It’s also live on BT’s EE mobile network in the UK, he added.

The real attraction for open systems is that “people don’t want to be in the middle of a geopolitical grinder”, he added.

Papa paid tribute to Huawei’s innovation, especially in “areas such as massive MIMO”, an abbreviation for “massive multiple input, multiple output”, where cell sites and terminals have multiple antennas so that they can use several channels at the same time.

It’s also been good at reducing the size of equipment, which means smaller batteries, smaller heatsinks to cool it, and even smaller cranes to install the equipment up the towers.

Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom has also embraced open RAN ideas. Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges said in May that he wants to start with 5G and then move to the entire RAN infrastructure.

An experienced former CTO of a mobile operator, speaking to Capacity on the basic of anonymity because of their current role, said: “Open RAN is driven by the need to get costs down.” This person pointed to related initiatives from the GSMA, the mobile industry’s trade association, and Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project.

“As 5G evolves it is more logical there will be more initiatives in open RAN, but a bigger category is softwarisation of the network – using software-designed radios,” said this person. “Open RAN adds to your choice and takes cost down too. Most of the capex in a network is in radio.”

Tim Gigg, director of Marlow Telecommunications Consultancy, agreed: “Open RAN and software is the way. You can use a simple server and repurpose it. Maybe that’s where we need to go.”

A still serving CTO of a mobile operator, also speaking on the basis of anonymity, said: “I’m a huge Huawei fan but we need our own suppliers.” This person thought that “there are lots of bits and pieces [of companies] with 5G that can be put together.” But “it’s a 10-to-20-year journey” if you look at how long Huawei has taken to build up its market share.