Telecom Infra Project (TIP) members are considering starting a new project group with the aim of developing an open whitebox reference design for 5G NR.
The target is to do something similar to what TIP’s OpenCellular project is doing in 2-4G, but for the 5G RAN. If successful the Group will define interfaces within and between disaggregated RAN elements so that software protocol stack vendors providing different features and functionality can be integrated with different configurations of open hardware platforms.
The proposed 5G NR Open Hardware Project Group is being led by operators BT, Sprint, and Vodafone. Processor/silicon vendors include ARM, Intel and Qualcomm. RAN hardware and software vendors include Airspan, Aricent, Parallel Wireless, Nokia and Aricent, while TechMahindra is on board as system integrator. The TIP participants called for other operators and partners to come forward to help define project scope and expand relationships with ecosystem partners.
Durga Sapathy, Director of Technology Innovation and Architecture, Sprint, said that the company is currently rolling out 4G M-MIMO, and early 5G deployments will use the same equipment. But this is about “what comes after” to define an open reference design that operators can take up to build solutions.
“Can we build a disaggregated, flexible 5G NR solution that leverage specifications development work that the industry is currently leading, and define that for practical network scenarios?” he asked.
Sapathy called for other operators to join the group to work with hardware, software and chipset vendors “to put together the flexible, cost effective 5G NR whitebox we are dreaming of.”
He said his chief motivations in the new group were to get better operator involvement in the RAN product roadmap, the ability to get new features deployed quicker, and lower capex and opex – with 30% as an open hardware target “sounding nice”.
Sapathy said that the initial focus will be on outdoor sub 6GHz microcells and then “we will go from there”.
Uzi Shalev, COO, Airspan Networks (a big Sprint supplier) said that disaggregating the RAN would enable smaller players to enter the market with new features. “If someone has a great idea for, say, compression at L1, they cannot put that into mix unless we disaggregate the network,” he said.
Colin Alexander of ARM said the processor company was involved in speccing out how the core processor platform of such a platform might be designed. This included aspects such as enabling programmability, meeting requirements for scheduling, beam forming and interacting with edge compute requirements, as well as how to scale to meet all the different “split” requirements in the network.
Does the industry need another open RAN programme? At the moment O-RAN Alliance is defining interfaces between the RRU and BBU with the aim of enabling flexibility and interoperability between different vendors of RAN functions. But the TIP group also looks like it will go further in that it is trying to define an actual open hardware reference design that developers can take and make RAN products from.