Orange’s network year

Open RAN, AI, but not so much cloud - how 2021 went down for Orange's mobile network team.

Hello. At the end of 2021, TMN Quarterly took a look back at the year, scoping out what happened in areas such as the telco cloud, Open RAN, core networks and so on.

One highlight was this article from Laurent Leboucher, Group CTO & SVP Orange Innovation networks, which looked back on Orange’s year from a network technology point of view. We extract it here in full. If you want to read the whole issue, and all our future issues, then you can subscribe here.

Onto the article and Orange’s year in networks. Leboucher says that 2021 was one of Orange’s top years for network investment. It now has 5G in six out of eight European countries, and it moved forward on Open RAN and automating its future network. However, LeBoucher still feels there is work to be done in telco cloud, with operators currently facing “a useless integration burden.”

Here’s the article in full from Laurent…

laurent leboucherAt the end of 2020, a lot of people had the feeling that 2021 would be the year where we would be coming “back to normal”, after a year that was so unexpected and complicated. It did in a way, but the new normal is definitely more complex, full of uncertainty and reinforces the need for connectivity.

At the start of 2021, we had four main targets:

  • Deploy 5G and put in place our towerco TOTEM
  • Progress on network automation
  • Prepare for the next network evolution
  • Reinforce our environmental commitment

Most of it took place as planned.

The deployment of 5G over Europe – from the allocation of spectrum licenses to commercial openings – progressed in all our countries.

We have now commercial 5G in six of our eight European operations, with good coverage, and the ramp up in traffic and customer base is as expected. The shortage of chipsets or the global supply chain disruption, illustrated by the stranding of the Evergreen container ship, did not significantly disturb our deployment, thanks to careful planning with our suppliers. I thank them for their involvement and reactivity. Our towerco TOTEM is now operational and manages over 26,000 sites in France and Spain.

In fact, 2021 was one of the years where I saw the highest network investment for Orange, because of the 5G deployment, but also because of the FTTH deployment in France, Spain and Poland.

The automation of our networks also developed as planned. All our European mobile networks were already optimised with C-SON (self-organising networks) and in 2021 we developed more sophisticated optimisation rules based on AI. Our partnership with Google Cloud on AI, signed in 2020, helped us focus our energy on the use cases and the algorithms while benefiting from good technical platform and tools.

When it comes to the preparation of network evolutions, we have many large projects in the pipeline, which have also their challenges:

First, the next step for us will be our 5G networks and the deployment of the 5G SA core network. Compatible devices are just starting to be available and first, the market needs to perform trials with our enterprise customers so that they get a good understanding of the advanced services they can expect with 5G. In 2021, we set up our first Orange 5G Labs in nine cities over Europe to answer this need and selected our suppliers and architecture for the deployment of our commercial networks.

Then, Open RAN should be the next major evolution of our mobile networks. 2021 has seen good progress in this area. In January, we signed an MoU with our European peers announcing our collaboration and our commitment to deploy Open RAN technology that responds to our European needs.  In November, we inaugurated our Orange Open RAN Integration Center near Paris, with a dozen of partners, where we test and integrate hardware and software modules. We also managed to avoid fragmentation within the industry, as well as diverging standards – and this is fundamental because fragmentation would be detrimental to the economies of scale.

Another great achievement was the deployment, commissioning and first lessons learned from Pikeo, our experimental network, which is cloud-native, full software, automated and AI-driven. This network kick-starts the technologies, level of automation and architectures that we envisage for the coming years: Open RAN technology, container based telco cloud, virtualised 5G core, automated deployment and management of virtual network functions, large scale data collection and AI optimisation.

I feel that there are, in the industry, too many “flavours” of different telco clouds, creating a useless integration burden

One topic on which the progress has not been as fast as I expected is telco cloud. This is not specific to Orange, but I feel that there are, in the industry, too many “flavours” of different telco clouds, creating a useless integration burden. We would benefit from more harmonised clouds, but that remains to be worked out with the rest of the industry.

As for our response to the climate emergency, this has been a topic high on Orange’s agenda for many years and a pillar of our strategic plan Engage2025. We have been pushing on the research and on the standardisation of energy saving features in 4G and 5G. These features are now deployed in our networks. But fighting climate change does not limit itself to reducing energy consumption and buying green electricity. In 2021, we also worked on the circular economy and the use of refurbished equipment, which is now fully embarked in our processes. We also developed tools that we could provide to our customers, enterprise or mass market, to provide information on the impact of their traffic. These developments will become more important in the coming years and answering the needs of the society will be the focus of 6G (rather than the technical capabilities or the sole improvement of performances).

In 2022, at Orange, we expect to build 5G standalone networks and enjoy the ramp-up of use cases taking benefit from these capabilities. We also expect to deploy the first Open RAN solution on Orange’s commercial networks, preparing the ecosystem for the large scale use of Open RAN.