When broad-based engineering group Altran acquired Aricent in 2017, it pushed into the mobile market, with a particular focus on small cells. In the past week, it has announced a range of partnerships with vendors to create 5G solutions, and its string of news highlights how the supply chain for many elements of the disaggregated 5G RAN – including small cells and fronthaul connections – will be very different from the world of 4G. As the large end-to-end vendors shift their emphasis towards software, orchestration and integration, many virtualized and physical components of the network will be provided by a wider variety of smaller companies, which will rely heavily on reference designs and engineering blueprints to reduce their cost and time to market.
Altran’s first announcement was that Baicells, which develops small cells and virtualized enterprise RANs, is using the French firm’s 5G RAN framework as the basis of solutions for private and enterprise networks as well as MNOs. This is a 5G gNodeB software framework for central and distributed units within a virtualized RAN. It aims to reduce cost and time for OEMs to develop products and operators to deploy them by offering pre-integrated stacks that support open interfaces and which span sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave spectrum bands.
It is compliant with 3GPP standards as well as ORAN and Telecom Infra Project specifications, and Small Cell Forum’s FAPI and nFAPI interfaces. That makes it interoperable with multiple physical layer (PHY) and remote radio unit (RRU) providers.
It contains 3GPP-specified Layer 2 and 3, which is fully compliant with the F1 interface between central unit (CU) and distributed unit (DU) modules, as well as scheduler and radio resource management applications that can be pre-integrated with multiple vendors’ PHYs. However, South Korea’s Qucell Networks has selected the Altran framework but will combine the central and distributed units to support an all-in-one small cell design.
Shenzhen Gongjin of China (known as T&W), also plans to use the framework for small cell solutions, which it is developing on the Qualcomm FSM100xx 5G Platform. N Mohan Rangan, chief engineering officer at Altran, said: “Combining Altran’s flexible, scalable 5G RAN software framework with T&W’s Qualcomm SoC-based solution will enable the quick development and deployment of 5G small cell solutions that cater to different verticals and a wide variety of mobile broadband business use cases.”
Altran also offers 5G Core software frameworks, which can be deployed as multiple modular microservices on any server or cloud environment.
Finally, the company has developed a disaggregated fronthaul framework based on Intel FPGAs, designed to help operators and vendors to accelerate large scale 5G fronthaul deployment.
The Fronthaul Gateway software framework enables radio aggregation from CPRI and eCPRI interfaces for transport over Ethernet networks using IEEE 1914.3 RoE and eCPRI. The framework supports time-sensitive networking (TSN) and telecom timing profiles for low latency. It also supports the ORAN Alliance’s management plane with NETCONF/YANG and REST application programming interfaces to enable software-defined networking control and full programmability.
The framework supports full Carrier Ethernet features with operations, administration and maintenance. It includes IPv4/v6 routing, IP virtual private networks (VPNs) and Ethernet VPN (EVPN) with MPLS, segment routing and a variety of transport options for deployments that combine fronthaul, midhaul and backhaul capabilities.
“5G fronthaul networks must dovetail with the wireless ecosystem, and Altran is uniquely positioned to address the diverse requirements of 5G with expertise and software assets across the digital stack and the mobile infrastructure,” said CEO Dominique Cerutti. “And our decade-long strategic partnership with Intel helps us build ready-to-deploy solutions that can dramatically accelerate time to market for our OEM customers.”
Altran was showing off its latest frameworks at MWC LA, but in July, it also announced new partnerships at MWC Shanghai. There, it unveiled a collaboration with Dutch chip company NXP and base station software specialist ArrayComm to create a 5G RAN reference design. This is based on the 5G gNodeB software framework, pre-integrated with ArrayComm’s 5G physical layer (PHY) software on an NXP system-on-chip, the ARM-based LayerScape LX2160A.
These kind of partnerships highlight the importance of lower cost development options to help diversify the supply chain, and reduce operator deployment burdens. While the leading operators are prepared to spend R&D and consultancy dollars to achieve heavily customized, optimized networks, many others lack the funds or willingness to deploy a hand-crafted solution. Some now see the end-to-end, turnkey solutions of the big OEMs as hard to justify too and are looking for disruptive providers of offerings with a far lower TCO.
There are three main elements to this on the hardware side. One, a network that is increasingly dense and made up of smaller parts lends itself to commoditized, WiFi-style products. Small cells, micro-servers for the edge and white boxes for switching and routing are all ushering in disruptive providers with new cost and profit norms.
Two, industry initiatives like Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are heavily focused on delivering open blueprints for hardware elements from small cells to MIMO antennas, which can be adopted by any vendor and support full interoperability.
And three, the reference design. This is an important aspect of any low cost value chain. An important driver of affordable handsets, it will also be an increasingly important part of the 5G network infrastructure process. It allows companies to create products quickly because the main work of design and pre-integration of components has been done, resulting in far lower development costs and time to market.
This ready-to-bake approach has served the WiFi ecosystem well, bringing the economies of scale of the Taiwanese ODM community, in particular, into play in wireless networks. For the cost of 5G to make sense to margin-squeezed operators, especially in emerging economies, the trend needs to become more mainstream in 5G too.