Ericsson finally succumbs and joins the ORAN Alliance

After months of speculation, Ericsson has joined the ORAN (Open RAN) Alliance, in what looks like a mighty departure from the norms on which the Swedish firm has built its whole business.

Nokia and Samsung have embraced several of the initiatives seeking to create open frameworks for disaggregated, mix-and-match RANs, but Ericsson has remained aloof. It seems that, while Nokia and Ericsson would clearly rather remain in the cosy world where they could lock customers into proprietary, end-to-end networks, they feel the tide of open, interoperable, virtualized systems is too strong for them to resist.

Nokia, whose thinking has been more software-centric than its rival’s for some years, perhaps found it easier to adapt itself to the new world, and it has even donated code to the ORAN Alliance, as has Samsung – which, as a minor player in mobile networks, has everything to gain by taking a lead in the new platforms. The Korean company will be hoping to score points with operators for its openness, but additional points for having considerable resources, by contrast with many of the open RAN vendors, which are start-ups or smaller companies without the scale to deliver a mainstream network for a large operator.

For Ericsson – and Huawei, which has not joined ORAN – the move to open source and common interfaces is a mighty wrench with the past. But now it says it will be an active participant, and will focus in particular on open interworking of the RAN with network orchestration and automation. It is especiallly interested, it said, in work on closed-loop automation and end-to-end optimization, both helped by artificial intelligence (AI).

CTO Erik Ekudden told LightReading: “We are naturally working with peers to drive the industry forward and ensure there is more interoperability and there is nothing in that against our strategy. One part of this is about new interfaces and the other is making it faster to deploy with new systems, using new developments in AI … Management and fast set-up, and being able to launch functions faster, is a business opportunity for us.”

Another area of focus for Ericsson, in its work with the ORAN Alliance, will be the upper layer function, as specified by the 3GPP, and on common profiles for the specified interfaces between central RAN functions. This statement suggests Ericsson cannot fully wean itself away from its previous position that official standards bodies are the best way to achieve interoperability (especially, of course, as these are dominated by large companies and it is hard for smaller ones to influence them, or even to break into the ecosystem).

But last autumn, the Swedish firm was giving indications that it was softening towards ORAN. “We are open to openness,” said Fredrik Jejdling, head of the Networks business at Ericsson, in September. “Ultimately, if that’s the way the market is going for innovation purposes or whatever reasons there are, we need to make sure that we are there, and we need to make sure we can provide the best software and hardware even if it’s a disaggregated model.”

He acknowledged then that Ericsson was considering joining the ORAN Alliance, though the group’s rules mean vendors have to receive an invitation (when it was initially announced, as a merger of the AT&T-initiated xRAN Forum and the China-centric Cloud-RAN Alliance, it was only for operators. Its founders were AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Docomo and Orange.)

Now that the invitation has been proffered and accepted, the statements are less ambivalent in tone. “Ericsson is a strong supporter of openness in the industry, and the benefits this has on global ecosystems and innovations,” said Ekudden in a statement. “Our ambition is to actively support and drive discussions and developments around future RAN architectures and open interfaces. The ORAN Alliance is an important coalition that creates an arena for these discussions, complementing other standardization and open source initiatives in the industry which we are already active in.”

It’s all change at Ericsson on many fronts, as it tries to turn around its cumbersome ship and get back to sustained profitability and growth. But though joining ORAN Alliance may look radical, the recovery strategy of its CEO Börje Ekholm has generally been a conservative one. He has reversed many of the expansionist moves of his predecessor, Hans Vestberg (now heading up Ericsson customer Verizon) – last week saw the divestment of 51% of MediaKind, the recently rebranded media business, for instance.

Instead of seeking new markets, he has doubled down on cost reduction and on boosting mobile network sales, especially 5G. For the latter, perhaps the firm has seen that, after the first brief phase of conventional build-outs, the leading operators will be deploying 5G in a very different, disaggregated way (see lead item). That means it would be self-defeating to remain outside the more powerful open initiatives. After all, the board members in ORAN, like the operators incubating disruptive start-ups under the banner of the Telecom Infra Project, will all be Ericsson’s primary targets, if Ekholm’s 5G-focused approach is to deliver results.