AT&T drives another industry initiative to inject openness into the telco chain

AT&T is setting a strong pattern of developing disruptive technology for virtualized networks inhouse and then placing it into an open source initiative. Its ECOMP management and orchestration (MANO) technology ended up as the major portion of ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol). Its dNOS network operating system for white boxes has become a Linux Foundation project. Now its XRAN development of a disaggregated, virtualized RAN, which had already been open sourced, is to merge with the C-RAN Alliance to provide a cross-industry platform that particularly aims to support 5G slicing and vertical market applications.

The motivations are the same in all three – to accelerate progress in breaking down the traditional supply chains, and cost bases, of the telco network; and to ensure that AT&T has a great deal of influence over how the new, decomposed networks are built and run.

The merger of the XRAN Forum and the C-RAN Alliance to form the ORAN Alliance will create a global “carrier-led” group to help intensify the drive for openness in the RAN, according to its founding members – AT&T itself plus China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Docomo and Orange.

All of these are very active in various initiatives to achieve an open ecosystem which will boost innovation and greatly reduce costs in the next generation RAN. Orange and DT are major players in the Facebook-inspired Telecom Infra Project, for instance, while China Mobile was the other major contributor to ONAP, when it merged its Open-O development with ECOMP.

The ORAN Alliance’s most urgent goal is to create open, standardized interfaces and reference designs to enable an open, interoperable, multivendor and competitive platform. These are cornerstones of all virtualization and software-defined networking initiatives, but some members feel these goals are getting lost amid complex and semi-proprietary platform developments.

The new group is also in the zeitgeist for two other reasons (both mirrored in TIP working groups too). One, it aims to support a wider range of business cases for MNOs by aiming for a cheaper, less complex way to enable network slicing, than the 3GPP and the big OEMs suggest. That, in turn, would make it easier for MNOs to implement new services aimed at vertical markets, with virtual network slices optimized for different requirements such as low latency or high availability.

And two, it aims to pursue automation by relying heavily on real time analytics and on machine learning.

“To take full advantage of the flexibility of 5G, we have to go beyond the new radios and change the overall architecture of the end-to-end system,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO. “Open modularity, intelligent software-defined networks, and virtualization will be essential to deliver agile services to our customers. ORAN will accelerate industry progress in these areas.”

“In order to respond to the growth of demanding business capabilities and affordable systems, 5G radio sub-networks need to evolve towards more flexible, open and smarter solutions,” said Emmanuel Lugagne, SVP of Orange Labs Networks. “The work of the ORAN alliance will be a perfect driver for the industry to help achieve these promises.”

The new Alliance made its opening statements at MWC, saying it was “committed to evolving radio access networks— making them more open and smarter than previous generations. Real-time analytics that drive embedded machine learning systems and artificial intelligence back end modules will empower network intelligence.  Additional virtualized network elements with open, standardised interfaces will be key aspects of the reference designs developed by the ORAN Alliance. Technologies from open source and open white box network elements will be important software and hardware components of these reference designs.”