Solving Europe’s supply chain challenge

Solving Europe’s supply chain challenge

21 October 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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When it comes to supplying Europe’s next generation of mobile equipment Huawei is out… but who (and what) is in? Alan Burkitt-Gray examines the future role of Open RAN.

When a technology that a few years ago was unknown to all but a few far-sighted developers is suddenly mentioned on Capitol Hill and in the House of Commons you know there’s been a seismic shift.
This is what has happened in 2020 with the idea of open radio access networks (open RAN or O-RAN), a way of liberating the closed-off supply chains for the clever kit that goes on mobile phone masts.

Interest has been driven by the sudden shutting down in many parts of the world of deliveries from Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE, leaving just two big and a handful of smaller companies dominating the market.

It’s not just the small number of vendors that people are worried about, making operators concerned about the resilience of their supply chains; it’s that all of them are proprietary.

It’s all a lot like the mainframe computer industry until that era died, and almost took IBM with it, in the mid-1990s. Stefano Cantarelli, CMO and executive VP at Mavenir Systems, was just starting out in his career then, but he understands the parallel.

“The number of suppliers is now very small,” he says. Take out Huawei and ZTE from China and there’s just Nokia and Ericsson from Finland and Sweden, and Samsung from South Korea and NEC from Japan.
As I speak to him, as he is sitting in the sunshine in northern Italy, I look around my desk: a laptop from Toshiba, a desktop PC from Dell. Displays from Acer and LG. Printer from Hewlett-Packard. Ethernet router from Netgear. Hard disc drive from Seagate. Keyboards from Logitech and HP. Mice from Logitech and Hama.

All nine vendors’ equipment are connected without problem (except that the Tosh laptop from my employer won’t discover the Seagate for security reasons).

But the IT industry wasn’t like that in the old days. If your IT department used kit from — to take one name from the history books — Honeywell, all your keyboards, displays, printers, memory and software had to come from Honeywell too.

Only IBM had a big enough market share to encourage cheaper rivals to offer compatible processors, memory and terminals, but only after a fierce legal fight.

In the past 25 years, computing has moved to the cloud — almost a perfect precursor for what’s starting to happen in mobile telecoms. We’re moving to an open RAN world.

Core networks have opened up — Vodafone UK, for example, uses a mixture of Nokia, Ciena, Juniper and Cisco, only one of them a telecoms vendor in the old sense.

“But in cellular the radio side has never been open,” says Cantarelli. “Operators are locked in to one vendor’s hardware and software.”

This means it’s a major challenge for an operator to move from one RAN supplier to another, as all UK operators with Huawei in their 5G networks have found out. They cannot buy more from the so-called “high-risk vendor” after 31 December, on government instruction, though an arm of the same government is urging them to stock up on spares before then.

All Huawei 5G kit will have to be replaced by 2027 — unless the UK government of the day changes its mind.

“Radio is very specific hardware,” says Cantarelli. “And specific hardware that needs to be there.” The aim, he explains, is to interface the radio with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, and that’s what Mavenir is doing. “At Mavenir we don’t do any hardware. We focus on 4G and then 5G. We don’t focus on one specific radio.” It’s open RAN or, the term he prefers, virtual RAN.

“We are end-to-end,” he adds. Mavenir software can work most of the features of a modern mobile network, including packet core, IMS — IP multimedia subsystem — and voice over LTE (VoLTE), as well as messaging.

Mavenir is working with a number of operators around the world, usually in limited applications for the moment.

In August Vodafone switched on what it says is the first open RAN site in the UK, operating a mast in rural mid-Wales. Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK, says: “This new approach has the ability to make us less dependent on current larger technology suppliers, and find ways to reduce the cost of rolling out mobile coverage.”

That term, “larger technology suppliers”, is a coded reference to giant vendors such as Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.

A few days later it tied up with NTT Data, owned by the Japanese telecoms giant, to develop 4G and 5G systems for use in private networks for German business campuses.

“While major providers only offer combinations of 4G and 5G networks and rely on proprietary systems, NTT Data focused early on virtualised networks and is a clear pioneer in offering a pure 5G network,” says Sebastian Solbach, head of telecommunications at NTT Data.

They expect to provide a complete range of 5G and 4G systems and solutions. These range from open RAN radio access, cloud core solutions for data and voice, management and orchestration of 5G solutions, digital enablement platforms to analytics and applications for enterprises and industry.

NTT Data says this is an important element of its software-defined 5G strategy: “The focus here is on virtualised mobile networks which reduce the dependence of subscribers on their provider. In the initial phase, they will be jointly developing concepts for the German-speaking market (Germany, Switzerland, Austria), with an expansion to other regions and markets expected to follow.”

But the open RAN prize to beat all others is Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce company that is launching its own 5G network in September, using open RAN techniques, with Mavenir as one of the suppliers. CTO Tareq Amin is talking to Indian vendors including Sterlite Technologies, Tech Mahindra and Wipro, and the company plans to start services in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya— testing the previous assumption that open RAN is suitable only for low-demand rural areas.

Rakuten has an R&D centre in Bangalore and it has bought a stake in Altiostar, a US company that specialises in virtual open RAN technology. Tech Mahindra also has a stake in Altiostar.

Rakuten is also buying InnoEye Technologies, a US/Indian R&D specialist that is building software for the Japanese network.

I also spoke to Bruce McClelland, CEO of Ribbon Communications, created three years ago in a merger of Genband and Sonus. Key issues, he says, are interoperability. “We think we’ve got the interfaces developed, for the control and automation of the network – how it’s provisioned. We’re close to starting interoperability testing at the lab level.”

Of course, interoperability is the crucial point. The point of open RAN and virtual RAN and open standards in general is that “you can use a variety of different vendors”, he says, “which is why we are such a strong supporter. The objective of open RAN is to have a more open architecture.” And that includes the optical transport in which Ribbon specialises.

McClelland points to the four-year old Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP) as “doing a lot of the architectural work. We’re part of that initiative.”

And there’s political backing, too. In the House of Commons in London in July Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, announced the ban on Huawei in new 5G installations after the end of 2020. His decision sent operators scurrying for alternatives, and not just Ericsson and Nokia too.

Four UK government departments are considering moves to spend millions to enable some of the country’s surviving telecoms engineering talent to rebuild a manufacturing capability. And a set of UK government-backed agencies called the Catapult programme, with a total of about £1 billion in funds, has put proposals to government departments on identifying existing talent in the RAN business and seeing whether it could be nurtured into a full-blown industry.

There is already a widespread recognition across the industry that open standards would enable more competition and innovation in the RAN industry and reduced operators’ dependence on a single supplier.

The UK has lost most of its telecoms vendors over the past 20 years, with the disappearance or acquisition of companies such as Marconi, Plessey and STC. North America lost Nortel and Lucent, and Motorola essentially moved out of the business. France lost Alcatel. Germany lost Siemens.

The UK also lost many of its technology pioneers to foreign ownership — notably microchip design company Arm, now owned by SoftBank. The UK government is planning to put a National Security and Investment law through Parliament, that would enable such acquisitions to be blocked if they were not in the national interest.

But those advising the government are not planning to propose a full-scale rival to Ericsson and Nokia, or indeed Huawei itself. “Creating a full competitor is not the way to go,” suggested one person close to the process.

The government has already agreed to create an £800 million UK version of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Department of Defense’s long-term development agency among whose credits are the internet itself, which was called Darpanet in its early days.

A UK ARPA would look at projects with a five-to-10-year delivery target.

And that timescale means it is slowly dawning in London that it might already be too late to get a UK 5G industry going. Much of the groundwork across the world for 5G was being done in the early years of this decade, and it’s only just getting installed — and there was a similar timescale for 4G in the previous decade. Time to start looking at 6G, maybe?