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14 December 2021

Japan accelerates pace of Open RAN while Europe stays cautious

Japan is on the verge of setting up an experimental wide area network to test 5G Open RAN equipment and ensure complete interoperability among a group of select vendors, in a bid to forge a coherent ecosystem.

This follows successful interoperability testing for radio units (RUs) from different vendors over a 5G Standalone (SA) network conforming to Open RAN interface specifications. This interoperability test used a software upgrade to introduce SA capability to NEC’s 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) baseband (centralized unit and distributed units or CU/DU) operating on the commercial network of Japan’s largest MNO, NTT Docomo.

The objective now is to build on this effort by setting up a full-scale experimental network, probably at Yokosuka Research Park near Tokyo, in an initiative led by the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications together with leading telcos, including Rakuten Mobile in addition to NTT. NEC will continue to be involved, as well as a few other vendors, in the tests.

The overriding objective at this stage is to forge full interoperability so that telcos can deploy RUs and DUs from different vendors interchangeably, aiming to push down on costs by expanding choice well beyond the three or four core RAN vendors to which operators are confined at present. This can only be done at this stage by bringing vendors together within a well-defined ecosystem for intensive interoperability testing.

Japan’s hyperactivity over Open RAN, as well as momentum building in North America and elsewhere, has exposed some dithering over the issue in Europe. This is surprising when we note that four of the seven companies making up the board of directors for the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are European Tier 1 operators – Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica and BT – while Europe-based vendor Nokia is another (along with Facebook and Intel).

TIP was set up in 2016 with a remit to drive common global telco infrastructure specifications and ecosystems, and while its initial focus was on low cost systems to connect the ‘nextbn’, as large operators became involved, 5G has been very much in its sights. Open RAN quickly became a cause célèbre for TIP, which has made significant contributions in driving requirements, specifications and trials.

But despite the European focus of TIP, in other ways the region seems to have become bogged down in various other issues associated with 5G roll-out. Some critics have pointed to over-reliance by some MNOs on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which allows operators to use 4G low-band frequencies to support both 4G and 5G, with more limited investment in the higher capacity and performance enabled by the midband spectrum around 3.5 GHz. More generally, this points to a priority to reuse existing assets rather than invest quickly in brand new architectures.

Of course, in a region where there is still underused 4G network and spectrum capacity in many countries, and where the pandemic has shifted usage, and operator investment, towards fixed lines, this is not necessarily a bad approach commercially. The pandemic gave many European operators a breathing space to slow down some 5G roll-outs until the business case caught up, easing pressure on overstretched budgets or allowing more investment to be shifted to fiber.

But this understandable caution does nothing to drive adoption of new architectures or embrace new vendors, of course, compared to operators with more urgent needs to expand their network capacity quickly – such as greenfield players like Rakuten, or MNOs in markets like Japan and the USA where capacity crunches are a real possibility.

The risk is that Europe is left behind, something that would be politically unwelcome to many governments in the area, as well as potentially reducing the influence of its operators and suppliers.

The so-called ‘Gang of Five’ of European operators – Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Vodafone – which signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate to drive Open RAN adoption and ecosystem in Europe, recently published a paper entitled ‘Building an Open RAN Ecosystem for Europe’. This acknowledged that, despite collectively spending €56bn in 2020 for radio network and transmission links, the continent was lagging behind other international markets.

The priority now – in the view of those who both support Open RAN and want Europe to be a leader in it – is for policy makers and other stakeholders to throw weight behind the movement and join in fully with other major ecosystem developments elsewhere. In particular, Europe can build on existing bilateral agreements, notably the EU-US Trade and Technology Council and the Japan-EU ICT Dialogue, to advance the development and deployment of open and interoperable network architectures.

There is also the admission in that paper that Europe has been distracted by the argument that Open RAN will expose the continent to foreign companies coming in with more competitively priced components. That defeatist argument needs to be scotched quickly, the paper readily concludes, given that Open RAN is coming regardless of what Europe decides – a matter of when, not if.

The real question is whether Europe wants to lead this new approach or become a follower. If Europe does not act now, it risks another technology gap that would harm Europe’s future competitiveness in innovative and efficient next generation networks, and ultimately its leadership and sovereignty in its own region”.

One way to do this will be to invest more time and resources, at EU as well as operator level, in testing and development. That is what Japan is now doing, after a series of milestone developments. Most importantly perhaps, in February 2021 NTT Docomo laid the ground with an agreement to cooperate with 12 companies with varying areas of Open RAN involvement to develop a ‘5G Open RAN Ecosystem’, aiming to accelerate progress globally, given the operator’s ability to influence platforms beyond its home country.

The partners are Dell Japan, Fujitsu, Intel, Mavenir, NEC, Docomo’s sister company NTT Data, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Red Hat, VMware, Wind River and Xilinx. Of these, Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Xilinx are chip developers, while Mavenir, Red Hat and Wind River are targeting vRAN from the cloud-based software angle (though Mavenir is also moving into radio units alongside Fujitsu and NEC).

These 12 vendors are implementing specifications developed by the O-RAN Alliance, of which NTT Docomo was a founding member, in 2018, alongside AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom and Orange (so again, there was significant European impetus at that stage). At the time of the launch, those members agreed that RAN equipment must become more energy efficient, software-driven, virtualized, flexible, and intelligent.

A significant move from the Japanese perspective came in November 2020, when its greenfield MNO Rakuten Mobile joined the O-RAN Alliance, moving on to claim that it had built the world’s first end-to-end, cloud-native mobile network with a multivendor platform. This was not, at that stage, O-RAN compliant, but had been designed for transition to O-RAN once the architecture matures, as far as possible through a software or firmware upgrade.

NEC, meanwhile, was laying down roots outside Japan. In December 2020 it established an Open RAN laboratory in India to complement its center of excellence (CoE) in the UK, with the aim of pre-integrating partners’ Open RAN components to form end-to-end commercial-ready systems. That new Indian lab has been charged with troubleshooting, lifecycle management, continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD), working with partners including Altiostar (the RAN xNF provider now owned by Rakuten), plus GigaTera and MTI.

A more recent step came in August, when NEC announced it had come together with Fujitsu to ensure their Open RAN 5G equipment interoperates. This work is being carried out overseas, at Fujitsu’s US labs and NEC’s in the UK, although funding is coming from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). The pair stated that they plan to work with NEDO further to “support global adoption and development of equipment that conforms to O-RAN specifications through this project”.

One common aspect of the European and Japanese efforts is a belief that these ecosystem initiatives should work together, rather than drive Open RAN into a series of islands that would compromise the global objective of driving prices down through greater competition and freedom of choice. The schism that has opened up between China and western countries has driven down choice on sides of the divide. That is one reason China Telecom has been leading the country’s efforts in Open RAN, at least wanting to keep some pressure on Huawei as its dominant 5G equipment supplier.

China is involved in Open RAN as strongly as any country and that itself has become a point of contention, leading to accusations that the O-RAN Alliance is not transparent about some of its contributors. The Chinese dimension may act to drive O-RAN participants outside the country into ecosystem groups around given standards subsets. After all, O-RAN only defines specifications and does not ordain standards for implementation.

Yet while it is clear is that there is some way to go before Open RAN makes a major impression on the RAN market and generates major new vendors, it is also clear there is now the will to make that happen, not least in Japan.