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9 January 2020

Etisalat joins the open RAN club with Middle East’s first full vRAN

Open RAN platforms such as those from the ORAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project (TIP) remain immature but they are gathering real momentum from the support of high profile operators. The latest is the United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat, which has launched a network using virtualized, disaggregated and open RAN technologies, supported by a group of suppliers including Altiostar, Cisco and NEC.

All three vendors are also part of the long supplier list for Rakuten’s more ambitious end-to-end cloud-native roll-out in Japan, and that may indicate the prestige that suppliers to that project have acquired, despite the challenges the deployment has suffered. Rakuten is implementing technology that complies with the ORAN Alliance specifications for an open, cloud-based radio network, as is its Japanese rival NTT Docomo.

Etisalat has not specified the open specs it is supporting but it is developing its new RAN on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and cloud infrastructure, with the ultimate goal of building an open vRAN across the whole UAE. It did not put a timeline on that, or indicate where its initial vRAN is located, and whether it consists of small cells (often a starting point for vRAN projects) or larger base stations.

Saeed Al Zarouni, the operator’s SVP of mobile networks, said: “Deploying the open vRAN is vital in enabling digital transformation aimed at increasing efficiencies and the utilization of AI,” he said in a statement. “Etisalat now plans to roll out Open vRAN across the UAE to take full advantage of all the benefits that this new technology offers.”

Operators are interested in open RAN solutions for two main reasons. They provide a fully uniform alternative to some key network interfaces that have previously been implemented in proprietary ways by different vendors, making it hard to mix and match equipment from different suppliers. Particular culprits are the CPRI fronthaul protocol for linking remote radio units with baseband processors; and the X2 interface connecting multiple 4G, or 4G and 5G, base stations.

Both of these are increasingly important as operators move to disaggregated architectures in which many digital functions are virtualized on cloud infrastructure, requiring high quality interfaces to the cell sites; and in which clusters of 4G and 5G base stations and small cells need to coexist efficiently. With CPRI and X2, single-vendor solutions are the simplest, but that locks operators into one supplier, and makes it hard for them to introduce solutions from newer or smaller vendors, even where those have established good expertise in a strategic area such as RAN virtual network functions (like Altiostar and others).

So ORAN and TIP (whose technologies are complementary) can help address that challenge, while also laying the foundations to cloudify the RAN completely in a multivendor way, as Rakuten has demonstrated with its dozen or more partners.

Last year, Telefónica and Vodafone announced requests for information (RFIs) and trials of TIP OpenRAN technology and the latter pledged to introduce open RAN systems to its whole footprint over time.

Etisalat has already launched 5G services in Dubai on a conventional RAN provided by Ericsson, and has also been reported to be working on 5G with Huawei.