It was a test and integration centre launch at which Orange was keen to emphasise its engagement with European vendors.
At launch, the lab itself hosted a fairly well worn set-up, if Open RAN could be said to be well worn at this stage: an MTI radio unit, Mavenir radio software, DellEMC server hardware. But this is just the start of things, Orange said. The idea is to engage with new players, and that would be just one step towards fostering more European-based involvement in the Open RAN ecosystem.
Orange is one of a number of operators who have judged that the lack of European players in the Open RAN space (and here we have to turn a blind eye to the looming presence of Nokia and, indeed, Ericsson) to be a potential strategic weakness. Both at its lab launch and a week or so later alongside its 5G Open RAN MoU signatories, it called for more European investment and involvement in the “Open RAN ecosystem.” A whitepaper from the operators titled “BUILDING AN OPEN RAN ECOSYSTEM FOR EUROPE” identified a number of Radio Unit manufacturers in Europe, including ATL, AW2S. Pharrowtech, Bellantenna, Benetel, Celestia, Comlab, Filtronic, RFS, SRS and Siae Microelettronica.
And so, back to Paris. Outside the lab’s server room, the one with the Dell-Mavenir-MTI setup, Orange’s lab head held up two radio units – one an indoor small cell type product from Benetel, and the other from the French company AW2S. These, Orange said, are the sorts of companies that European governments and operators could be encouraging.
Both are listed in the “ecosystem” whitepaper. Benetel is probably a name many would recognise, at least readers of TMN should be aware of its ambitions.
AW2S may be less well known, certainly outside of France. It is based in Bordeaux, and previously operated as an R&D centre within Commscope, and before that, Andrew. The business was spun out as AW2S in 2012 when Commscope indicated it would be closing the unit. It is now owned by Serma Group.
The business had designed radioheads for OEMs such as Nortel and Alcatel, and products such as DAS power amplifiers. Currently AW2S has 20 staff on the team, 15 of them from the ex-Commscope days.
Its co-founder Jeremy Tastet says that as a small company it has been dedicated to serving niches in the space, military and defence markets. Most recently it has been looking at embedded systems in satellites.
After leaving Commscope it continued to work in cellular infrastructure, providing some services and designing products for system integrators. But since 2014, it has moved on from designing products for others to marketing its own products – mainly for 4G.
It has also teamed up with other French or European companies to create more integrated products. For example it combines radio software from Amarisoft with its own radios, providing products aimed at the private network space. It has projects in Band n77 private network in the UK and n78 in Germany. It works with Thales on some defence and military products. It also has about 60 Fixed Wireless Access 60 sites providing commercial internet access in rural areas. Two years ago it moved on to include 5G support, mainly with Amarisoft as its partner again.
“The idea,” Tastet says, “is to focus on our core expertise, the RU part, and to be able to provide our solution to many use cases.”
And so on to Orange and Open RAN and the ecosystem. Is AW2S, currently a 20 person company, really the sort of business that is set to benefit from a shift in MNO RAN procurement?
Tastet says the company has been engaging with Orange for a while now, first combining on some R&D a few years ago.
“We are discussing several ideas with Orange, moving step by step. Our intention is to see how we can deploy from a commercial point of view. We have as well some opportunity in the US in the Open RAN area. We are in contact with players you could identify in this ecosystem.” In the US, of course, companies such as Mavenir had identified that they would like to partner with a wider range of RU providers.
While Tastet admits it is yet to be seen what Orange’s intention is, with major Open RAN deployments not scheduled before 2024-25, he thinks “there is a place for us”. His target is to be part of Orange’s rural site deployments, during Orange’s trial phases through 2023-24.
“I think they do want a French partner and although today we don’t have real commitments that they plan to use AW2S radio, we know they intend to include us in the trial phase around the 2023-24 in rural areas. This is our target, to see how we can be involved in such a deployment with them. Today we don’t have that confirmed.”
One point of differentiation that Tastet identifies in Open RAN is that AW2S can support 2-4G from a single radio, providing a multi-RAT radio which is something not everybody can put on the table, he says. Another is that the company can focus on quality, and also on specific use cases and specifications.
If we had the volume we could fit the market price
But there’s still the question of scale and capacity for companies such as AW2S.
“For sure in terms of classical product it is difficult to compete. We are putting in place today some way to ramp up production – but for sure we need to identify specific use cases where we can add value.”
Tastet identifies the chicken and egg situation of all companies looking to scale – to be cost competitive it needs to scale, but it won’t scale within its current cost structure.
The company builds its solutions using Xilinx FPGAs and plans to use Xilinx’s latest generation RF SoC hardware. Analog Devices and NXP on the power amp side are also partners. Another technology partner is antenna designer Amphenol. The companies have combined to develop some higher order MIMO and active antenna solutions. That work has also involved Orange.
Aside from that, “We do all the design in-house, software, and today we manufacture the boards, and then recover all the parts in house for final assembly.”
But Tastet is aware that despite European operators talking a good game about expanding the Open RAN ecosystem, he still faces high build costs and cannot gain the economies of scale that larger providers can.
“It’s still chicken and egg. We don’t have high volumes so it’s difficult to go to a component manufacturer to negotiate a low BOM price to fit a low cost requirement. So our added value has to be in quality and performance. In fact we have had customer feedback on our product compared to a T1 vendor and saw we have some better performance.
“So we are confident if we had the volume we could fit the market price, because based on what we know the other RU manufacturers use the same vendors as us, so it’s just a question of volume and BOM price.”
The question for the MNOs is, do they want to invest in volume in providers such as AW2S. Do radio software vendors and integrators such as Mavenir want to bring smaller companies like this into their ecosystems. There’s a growing cynicism in some quarters that what MNOs are doing with Open RAN is keeping their main macro vendors “honest” – especially around API openness and enabling future flexibility of software deployment. What they’re not interested in, some contend, is breaking open a new cadre of businesses to compete at scale in the RAN.
The future path of the likes of AW2S and Benetel will tell us if they really mean to invest in and scale up these companies, or if they will keep them lying on the table outside the server room.