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26 January 2021

Juniper gains a RIC and a captive customer from Türk Telekom deal

Among the companies from the IT world that see open RAN as a route into the 5G market, Juniper has moved particularly quickly. Last week it announced its contribution to the emerging market for RAN Intelligent Controllers (RICs), a key element of the O-RAN Alliance architecture. The RIC abstracts control functions that were traditionally embedded in the base station and runs them as xApps on cloud infrastructure.

Juniper has established stronger credentials than some mobile market newcomers by co-developing its offering with an operator, Türk Telekom. It worked with Netsia, the US arm of the telco’s R&D arm, Argela, which has been at the cutting edge of technologies like network slicing for several years.

The two companies claim the RIC has resulted from a “one-of-a-kind partnership between a supplier and a customer”, and one of the advantages Juniper gets from this deal is an exclusive global licensing agreement for a RIC originally developed by Netsia.

Juniper now has all the rights to Netsia’s RIC, which of course gains the potential to achieve far broader uptake than as an internal development for Türk Telekom. I return, Juniper takes on the work of developing the RIC further, and ensuring that it works optimally for Türk’s own open RAN implementation. This effort should, in theory, dovetail with evolution of a fully standardized RIC in future, but in the near term – and perhaps far longer – the criticality of RAN control, and the uniqueness of each early O-RAN operator’s implementation, are likely to involve Juniper in considerable effort specifically on Türk’s behalf.

However, it gains a captive customer – as part of the agreement (though possibly not in the full spirit of open multivendor networks) Türk Telekom has committed to purchase Juniper solutions to support its open RAN and 5G roll-out, assuming an initial proof of concept, involving Juniper’s RIC and “broader portfolio”, is successful in late 2021.

Netsia’s RIC has been in development for five years already – before it was associated with the emerging O-RAN specs – and the firm has already carried out proofs of concept and trials with several operators. It was a member of the xRAN Forum, which merged with the China-centric Cloud-RAN Alliance in 2018 to form O-RAN. It has also attracted attention for its trials with another technologically advanced Turkish operator, Turkcell – in early 2018, Turkcell conducted network slicing trials in Istanbul using Argela/Netsia’s ProgRAN platform. The near-real time RIC will be an important enabler of slicing in the O-RAN model.

Netsia/Argela have also worked with Telefónica on RAN slicing trials, running a hospital scenario in the telco’s Madrid labs, in which the RAN was optimized for different use cases, with different network requirements, simultaneously. Some of the development done for ProgRAN is being applied to O-RAN environments. ProgRAN decouples the data and control planes in the RAN, and allows operators to create, modify or terminate virtual base stations dynamically on existing base station hardware, each programmatically anchored to a corresponding core network.

Netsia has also worked with Belgian small cell provider Accelleran on a dynamically re-deployable vRAN platform. This used Accelleran’s open vRAN architecture, which supports RAN network functions in a cloud-native, microservices-based environment.

Many companies are piling into the RIC game. Some remain doubtful about whether the more demanding near-real time RAN control functions can be effectively deployed as xApps and are remaining focused on non-real processes for now. Others are seeking to lead the charge for near-real time RIC.

  • Nokia and Samsung already have offerings, and Nokia has trialled its system with AT&T. The Finnish vendor contributed a lot of the initial O-RAN code.
  • Recent announcements include those from Airhop, which is focusing on the ONF’s SD-RAN initiative (see separate item) for its near-real time RIC and xApps development.
  • VMware has developed a pre-standard, near-real time RIC that will be adapted as fully agreed O-RAN interfaces are finalized. It has been trialling and evolving this with Deutsche Telekom.
  • Some O-RAN base station challengers are offering or developing RIC platforms, though of course, the aim of the open specs is that a RIC specialist can deploy its software for any O-RAN radio unit. Vodafone has been using Parallel Wireless’s base stations and RIC for a 30-site deployment in Ireland, while Mavenir and Bharti Airtel of India demonstrated a RIC, supported by machine learning, in a plug fest hosted by the operator in November. The plugfest included 55 stakeholders, and at the event, STL worked with ASOCS to demonstrate the mobility load balancing use case with a near-real time RIC.