Open RAN sausage starts to sizzle ahead of MWC

In the MWC messaging sausage factory: Open RAN

One thing that MWC does is provide a deadline for companies that know they will be asked to prove progress on key strategic targets for the industry. This year, keep an eye out for Gen AI adoption, for network API business models and, returning for another year, for Open RAN progress.

Nothing focusses the mind like a conference hall or press rota asking, wait a minute, this thing you’re promising us today – didn’t you also promise us this last year?

And so as we dust off last year’s to-do list for Open RAN, we will find in the Notes app of the industry the following:

  • buy more chip support
  • arrange brownfield deployment??
  • sort integration and testing
  • book ecosystem health check

Where can we show progress?

How the agenda sausage is made

Just to lift the curtains a bit on how the MWC agenda sausage is made, this week and next sees “pre-briefing” events from Ericsson, Intel, Dell, Qualcomm and AWS, among others. It’s not breaking any embargos to reveal  or predict that there’s going to be a healthy amount of Open RAN chat from nearly all of these.

And before we even get there, we need to consider this week’s flurry of Open RAN releases, some of which are as much about the message as they are delivery of real Open RAN technology.

Take the announcement that the US government agency NTIA is to clear out the first tranche of its Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund.  (A second tranche is due to follow: funded by the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, the Innovation Fund will invest $1.5 billion over the next decade to support the development of open and interoperable networks)

Finding $42 million down the back of the sofa, NTIA dedicated the last of the Fund’s first tranche to a project to set up two test and integration labs under a new project called Acceleration of Compatibility and Commercialization for Open RAN Deployments (ACCoRD).

“The center will focus testing on network performance, interoperability, security, and facilitate research into new testing methods,” the NTIA release said.

AT&T and Verizon will lead the project. NTT DOCOMO and Reliance Jio are unfunded, founding members of the consortium. The University of Texas at Dallas will assist in the maintenance of the Dallas-area center, while Virginia Tech, Northeastern University, Iowa State University and Rutgers University will provide neutral laboratory support.

The suppliers for ACCoRD include Microsoft, Nokia, Radisys, Airspan, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Rakuten, Samsung, Mavenir, VMWare, RedHat, Wind River, Ciena, Cisco, Dell, Intel, Amdocs, Keysight, and VIAVI.

DOCOMO said, “Going forward, DOCOMO will contribute to supporting operators in their adoption of Open RAN through this consortium and the company’s Open RAN service brand OREX.”

Another integration lab? Well yes. Integration and test has been a market stopped because the lack of certified solutions holds up depoyment. Operators will never accept a RAN solution with a tick and just deploy it, but they would like, for example, a certification system that gives them assurance that this software will work on that server, and this CaaS, and so on. ACCoRD is a part of that momentum.

One of those listed suppliers, Samsung, is amongst the forerunners in making sure that 2024 starts with a wider awareness of its Open RAN bona fides.

In three releases this week it pushed forward on Open RAN. First, in welcoming its involvement in the ACCoRD consortium (where it also took the opportunity to state that it has been involved in Open RAN for years with Verizon. Second, it said that separately to the Accord lab work, it has completed work with Keysight and Verizon to test conformance and interoperability testing for commercial-grade LTE and 5G NR radios for Verizon’s network.

These tests put Samsung’s RUs up against Keysight’s O-DU vRAN emulation software to test out the fronthaul interface support on O-RAN CAT-A radios with 4T4R supporting 700/850 MHz and AWS/PCS bands, CAT-B 64T64R Massive MIMO C-Band radios, and a 16T16R C-band and CBRS dual-band radio.

Samsung was keen to draw attention to the performance of its 64T64R RU. Are we going to see Verizon leverage these lab tests to introduce an architecture which sees Samsung RUs connected to a non-Samsung baseband (DU-CU)? We’ll find out.

“O-RAN is a very important component of our network evolution strategy,” said Steven Rice, Vice President of Network Planning at Verizon. By leveraging O-RAN radios and software-driven infrastructure with industry-leading partners like Samsung and Keysight, we continue to drive the industry towards a more open, interoperable environment which will provide greater flexibility, greater innovation and better performance for our customers.”

Perhaps the most notable of Samsung’s releases is that it had got its vRAN software working on hardware based on an AMD SoC. This was another lab test that the Samsng basedband solution run on Supermicro servers based on AMD EPYC™ 8004 Series processors, in Wind River Studio Container-as-a-Service (CaaS) platform.

What’s important here? Well, Vodafone, which was a partner in this test, is a big Samsung customer for Open RAN, with an Intel-based setup so far going into operation in its Huawei replacement sites in the UK.

AMD is an attractive option to software players as the effort to port from Intel is minimal, both being x86 platforms. The Vodafone/Samsung trial showed that Supermicro was able to build a functioning server for the Samsung vRAN workloads.  What we didn’t hear was how the server was accelerating the L1 workloads, which has also been a contentious issue for some in the industry (others are less religious about the inline/lookaside split).

Whilst the messaging is important, this integration of a key vendor partner for Vodafone on a new hardware platform shouldn’t be shrugged off, however. While Vodafone has so far deployed Samsung RUs connected to Samsung DU-CUs, it has has never made a secret of the fact that it thinks Open RAN is not just about which RU connects to which baseband. It thinks the industry needs competition at silicon level – witness its investment in its Malaga lab where chips from the likes of Marvell and others are assessed.

So that’s the sausage factory starting to move into action – with more meat and fat stuffed casings to follow. And so as we move towards MWC, these sorts of Open RAN releases will continue. The messages are: chip and vendor diversity is still on the up. Integration challenges, key to deployment volume and efficiency, are being addressed.

What would really make things sizzle would be an operator turning up the heat on a major deployment, ushering in new vendors to their network list.

Vodafone is a candidate, despite it leaning heavily on Samsung so far. It has stated that about a third of its 170k site RAN refresh tender will go to Open RAN compliant equipment. That could mean the likes of Ericsson, by the way, although the operator also said that it is not doing all of this work just to be able to re-badge Ericsson as Open RAN – it wants flexibility of choice and diversity in its supplier base.

Will there be many others? Perhaps don’t fire up the grill just yet, but notice the messaging.