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12 January 2021

Key developments of 2020 Part 3

Selecting the key developments and milestones of 2020: September-December

 

In our final edition of Wireless Watch for 2020, we took our second look back at the key events, for the cellular industry, of the year, covering the middle months. This week, we kick off our 2021 editions with our final look back at the strangest of years, with our  selection of the developments on which we commented in the period from September to December 2020 – not necessarily highlighting the biggest headlines, but the stories which we feel will have lasting resonance in the year ahead.

Of course, the impact of Covid-19 continued to be felt, mainly in the results announcements of operators and vendors – and some auction delays – rather than specific major changes to mobile network roadmaps. In fact, 2021 will be the year to start to assess the ripple effects in earnest, as the telecoms industry deals with global recession – though with stronger defences than many more beleaguered sectors.

One much-anticipated indirect result of the economic havoc may be to stimulate M&A activity in the hi-tech world, by forcing companies to huddle together for warmth, and by making regulators more willing to green-light mergers in order to help businesses survive. There may be a new wave of operator consolidation in Europe, and any tightening of investment capital may hasten the rationalization of start-ups in sectors such as open RAN. At the other end of the scale in terms of vendor size, many analysts are still watching for the break-up and/or acquisition of Nokia during 2021 (though we think a selective asset sale is more likely than a full takeover).

Of course, M&A was a major feature of the past few years anyway, especially in the semiconductor market. Nvidia’s bid to acquire ARM from Softbank, and AMD’s play for Xilinx, will both – if successful – help to reshape the mobile industry. The latter will create a counterbalance for the Intel/Altera combination, which is highly relevant in virtualized RAN as well as other demanding cloud platforms. The former could shake up the ownership of the intellectual property underpinning the whole mobile device industry, as well as impacting on the battle for the cloud infrastructure segment (see below).

Another important development in semiconductors was the return of Qualcomm to the macrocell network infrastructure market, after many years when it was confined to devices and small cells. This may well herald another attempt to take on Marvell in the ARM-based cloud server sector, in anticipation of vRAN deployments.

The rising interest in vRAN, and particularly in Open RAN architectures, was a defining theme of the later months of 2020, and will remain one throughout 2021. Among many developments, we were particularly interested in Telecom Infra Project’s new RAN-focused workgroups and its set of blueprints, which aim to address the difficult side of new mobile platforms – not so much the exciting new technology specs as the business of making these fully deployable even in challenging conditions.

Meanwhile, Vodafone remained the cheerleader for Open RAN, naming compliant vendors for its latest RFI and reiterating its pledge to support O-RAN specifications in at least half of its base station footprint as it renews it. It remains to be seen how far Vodafone will go in re-architecting its supply chain along with its network, or how far it is seeking to apply very public pressure to its existing vendors, but it is certainly injecting real momentum into the fledgling ecosystem. In naming the suppliers which responded to its open radio unit RFI, and best supported the requirements, it painted a picture of a diverse vendor landscape and low barriers to entry.

It is not only challengers and smaller names that are interested in vRAN however. Ericsson may remain skeptical about O-RAN (though contributing to some of the O-RAN Alliance working groups), but it unveiled its Cloud-RAN portfolio to great fanfare, setting up a battle with Nokia and Samsung, which had done the same (with more nods to O-RAN) a little earlier in the year.

For Samsung, its earliest successes in infiltrating the 5G supply chain (outside South Korea) have come less from open RAN than from its strong skills in millimeter wave 5G and fixed wireless access (FWA). These gained it places in the 5G roll-outs of Verizon and AT&T, and it built on that in late 2020 by securing a seat at Verizon’s broader 5G top table.

Amid all the change and novelty, however, there will always be some constant themes. Two articles published in December brought a sense of Groundhog Day. For the third year running, Amazon AWS’s Re:invent developer event focused heavily on edge computing and, in particular, the intersection with 5G – in a way that appeared to offer opportunities for telcos, but also made it clear that AWS would be defining many of the rules of engagement.

And no year would be complete without a major patent battle between two mobile giants. The last one of 2020 came as licensing negotiations broke down between Ericsson and Samsung. It is highly likely that more patent lawsuits, between various players, will follow in 2021 – as well as more edge-related alliances and tensions between operators and webscalers.

September 2020

Pandemic boosts FWA, and opens 5G doors to new vendors

The rise in usage of home broadband lines during the Covid-19 pandemic, with its enforced shift towards home working, is proving an unexpected endorsement of the 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) model.

In the first days of commercial 5G, FWA was center stage because of Verizon’s high profile launch, but the US telco was almost unique in claiming it had a standalone business case for fixed home services.

For other early movers, FWA was a way to start signing up subscribers in targeted areas even before they had built out much coverage (Three UK); a means of exploiting a spectrum advantage as quickly as possible before rivals acquired more capacity too (Optus Australia, and Three again); a way to test out the capabilities and address the challenges of high frequency spectrum without risking the primary services (AT&T). But these operators, with their plentiful amounts of 3.5 GHz or millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, did not talk about FWA being an end in itself – but rather a stepping stone to full, national, mobile 5G, and an additional revenue stream to sweeten the business case.

The pandemic is likely to have elevated FWA in the view of its deployers – and its naysayers – creating new levels of demand and putting the technology through its paces. The number of FWA connections is forecast to grow by 20% year-on-year in 2020, including networks running on 4G, 5G and proprietary technologies (the last of these usually in unlicensed spectrum). Analysts at Mobile Experts predict that the number of FWA connections will grow almost threefold between 2019 and 2025, to reach 170m worldwide, with a rise in CPE shipments from 25m last year to 34m in 2025.

Principal analyst Kyung Mun commented: “Governments are fuelling this FWA growth by providing direct funding through broadband subsidy programs like the $20bn RDOF in the USA. As more spectrum comes available, possibly as much as 20 times more across licensed and unlicensed bands, the FWA market is poised for significant growth in the years to come.”

But the arguments still rage over whether a 5G solution can ever be more than a second best to a fiber one, and whether it really brings the operator lower total cost of ownership (lower capex for wireless connectivity can be offset by higher opex and a shorter lifetime than FTTx). And perhaps, in rural or remote markets where it is more cost-effective to deploy wireless than fiber, both options will soon be swept away by the low-cost promises of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other low earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators.

The debate was highly audible earlier this year, when the US regulator, the FCC, initially excluded 5G fixed wireless from eligibility for the top tier of funding under the new FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will distribute up to $20.4bn to operators to support construction of fixed telecom networks in rural areas. Specifically, FWA was not deemed to be a viable solution for the gigabit services which are the highest rung of the RDOF scheme ((the other performance tiers are ‘minimum’ at 25Mbps and ‘baseline’ at 50Mbps). LEO satellite providers have also been battling to be eligible to bid for Gigabit tier funds.

There was an outcry from many wireless and Internet companies in April. Ericsson wrote: “5G is not just for mobile broadband, it is applicable to fixed wireless access as well – in fact some of the first use cases for 5G are FWA applications, such as wireless fiber solutions and connecting unserved areas. A 5G FWA network eliminates the need for costly deployment of fiber-based access infrastructure and offers peak rates that few other fixed technologies can match. 5G FWA can reduce the initial cost of last mile connectivity by as much as 40% compared to fiber.”

Faced with such arguments, the FCC changed its mind in May, but there were criticisms of that stance too, from stakeholders which believe FWA will provide a compromise solution, which will quickly run out of steam as users’ need for high speed broadband rises as a result of remote working and other trends.

And even the FCC was hesitant when it announced its change of policy in May. Although it said FWA providers could bid for the funds, it wrote in its filing: “We expect it will be … challenging for a fixed wireless provider to make a case that it can offer a mass market service meeting the gigabit performance tier.”

Despite the fillip from the shift to working from home, the long term FWA business case looks marginal for most operators. Few operators have as much midband spectrum as Three UK or Optus (both acquired via acquisitions of WISPs with 3.5 GHz assets) and, once their networks start to get loaded up with mobile traffic, will need to move up to millimeter wave if they are serious about supporting significant numbers of fixed users without damaging their mobile QoS.

There are windows of opportunity for FWA in countries where FTTH has not got far yet (like the UK), or where it is very expensive. But in a few years’ time, it is likely that FWA will be thrown back to the same difficult models that made fixed 4G or WiMAX tough – to undercut fiber and be forever stuck in price wars; or to target areas unserved by fiber, which brings high operating cost and, often, a low income user base.

There may be more enterprise cases for FWA which can use the improved speeds and cost of ownership of 5G, especially in premises that are hard to equip with fiber. But in markets where there isn’t much fiber or users are very cost-sensitive, the MNOs’ opportunity will be weakened by the emergence of more open solutions. Some of these are coming from the outdoor WiFi community, using souped-up implementations of the 802.11 radio; others are coming from the Facebook-initiated Telecom Infra Project (TIP), with its Terragraph platform for unlicensed spectrum.

Whether 5G FWA goes the same way as LMDS at the start of the century or WiMAX a decade later, or becomes a mainstream element of the fixed broadband landscape, remains to be seen. But there is certainly high interest in it right now, and if nothing else, that is giving both vendors and operators a chance to open new doors into the 5G market.

Samsung is a key example – having gained a place in three US operators’ 5G roll-outs partly on the back of its expertise in mmWave and fixed wireless technologies, it has now established its credentials to win larger deals which also cover fully mobile connectivity, as highlighted by its new $6.6bn contract with Verizon.

Samsung had very little presence in cellular networks, outside South Korea, before 5G, but its early success – crowned by its $6.6bn deal with Verizon – has not come out of nowhere. Long years of largely under-the-radar experience in deploying fixed wireless networks, and developing solutions for millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, have finally paid off, converging to propel the Korean company into its strongest position yet in cellular networks.

Smaller suppliers too, coming from the fixed broadband CPE and the mmWave backhaul sectors, are seeing the chance to take a 5G position. Casa Systems, Siklu and Airspan are just three US-based examples.

But while FWA expertise, especially in the challenging mmWave bands, may help a vendor take its place in the growing ‘open 5G’ (aka anti-Huawei) ecosystem, the Chinese supplier is certainly not standing still in the FWA space either. It has large contracts in China and other Asian markets for its FWA systems, and has recently announced AirPON, which supports converged fixed/mobile build-outs, leveraging mobile sites for fixed broadband services .

September 2020

Nvidia’s bold move on ARM is a deep threat to neutral chip platforms

Nvidia’s $40bn proposed acquisition of ARM represents a greater threat to the UK-based company’s unique model, and to the ecosystem it has enabled, than its previous takeover, by Japan’s Softbank, which bought ARM in 2016 for $31bn.

Hit by a series of financial blows, Softbank had one crown jewel left to monetise, and that was ARM. It is to sell ARM to US chip vendor Nvidia, which – if allowed by regulators, which is a big ‘if’ – would mark the slow death of a licensing model that has enabled common underpinnings and massive scale in the mobile device business.

ARM made a rare success of licensing intellectual property (IP) for processor cores, including for CPUs, graphics processors and microcontrollers. It rode the wave of miniaturization computing capabilities within mobile formats and undisputedly, its greatest success has been the smartphone, providing CPU and GPU cores for increasingly powerful handsets, and enabling an ecosystem of massive scale. Over 180bn devices have been shipped based on ARM designs, and Nvidia says the deal will expand its developer base almost sevenfold, adding ARM’s 13m to its own 2m.

The ARM model in smartphones saw large numbers of licensees able to develop devices without the time and cost involved in creating a processor from scratch, and with commonality of testing, software and skills. They could innovate in many areas from system-on-chip (SoC) integration to form factor, while a few companies – like Qualcomm and Apple – acquired architectural licences in order to develop their own core designs within the ARM framework.

Nvidia pulled out of the smartphone SoC market in 2016 after buying modem maker Icera in 2011, but struggling to make any inroads into Qualcomm’s dominance. So ARM’s most famous business is presumably not the attraction, but instead, its Neoverse infrastructure CPU architecture. Nvidia has the opportunity to eat into Intel’s server incumbency with its very different architectural take on high performance cloud computing, to support artificial intelligence and other demanding use cases. Its GPU-focused platform is even sparking interest in the difficult virtualized RAN area, notably with a joint development with Ericsson of GPU-based infrastructure to support near-real time base station processes in the cloud.

But none of this needs an ARM acquisition. Nvidia licenses ARM IP, and it could invest in a full architectural licence if it wants more freedom in how it differentiates its CPUs.

This is about full control of an ecosystem that can be as broad as Intel’s in server and cloud chips. In GPUs, Nvidia has been licensing, or open sourcing, some elements of its own technology, and has built an ecosystem around its CUDA parallel processing platform and programming model. Buying ARM may be a way to accelerate the extension of its technologies into the huge ARM ecosystem, effectively creating a single GPU-based platform from devices to supercomputers and converging the surrounding tools and APIs.

The ARM purchase would mean Nvidia had technology in CPUs, GPUs and high speed networking design (courtesy of its Mellanox acquisition), plus a licensing business. CEO Jensen Huang told a press conference to announce the bid: “We will now have in one company three franchises and three incredible platforms. The amount of computer science horsepower that is inside this company would be quite extraordinary, and it allows us to create solutions and platforms that can then be made available to this vast network of partners and developers.”

Huang claimed that it would be feasible to combine Nvidia’s research efforts with those of ARM, while also preserving ARM’s open licensing and customer neutrality, and extending its licensing processes to Nvidia IP too.

“The customer should realize how excited I am about the business model,” Huang said.

In fact, we’re so excited about the business model we’re going to take Nvidia technology and put it through ARM’s vast channel networks.”

Huang was particularly focused on ARM’s Neoverse architecture, which underpins cores for server processors, and which fits into Nvidia’s key market in high performance computing (HPC) and cloud infrastructure. It has proved challenging to get ARM processors into servers at scale, and Qualcomm and Marvell are among the companies which have defocused on general purpose ARM-based server chips in favor of more tailored products. But Amazon does use ARM cores in its Graviton chips, and that route into a hyperscaler would be worth a good chunk of the price of ARM from Nvidia’s point of view. And converging Neoverse with its own GPU-based architecture would give it a richer and more powerful platform with which to compete with Intel in the latter’s stronghold, as well as with other major infrastructure processor vendors like Marvell.

Of course, it is early days for Nvidia to explain, or even know, all the details of how it would run ARM in future, but it will soon have to start drawing up detailed plans to share with customers and regulators. Huang is keeping his options open for now, but even the understandably vague answers he gave to journalists at the press conference hinted at a major change in business model – one in which Nvidia would build CPUs for companies which licensed the IP.

“Some people would like to license the cores and build a CPU themselves,” he said. “Some people may decide to license the cores and ask us to build the CPUs or modify ours and we could build it ourselves. All of those options exist.”

The vision is ambitious – bringing Nvidia and Mellanox IP into the ARM licensing framework in order to provide tailored licensing deals, or reference designs, or even whole chips, which use different combinations of the three platforms, according to a customer’s requirement.

“There are going to be so many different types of data centers in the future. There are gigantic  cloud ones; there are smaller ones for enterprise; there are high power density ones for supercomputing; there are ones that are going to fit in locations all over the world in distributed data centers,” Huang said. “It’s not possible for one company to build every single version of them, but we’ll have the entire network of partners around ARM that can take the architectures we come up with.”

Success would see Nvidia dominating the core technologies underpinning future servers. It might enable additional competitors to itself, but it would also control the strategic direction for a whole ecosystem, and so put itself in a stronger position to seize that initiative from Intel, and to appeal to the critical customers, the hyperscalers.

But while it can certainly be argued that such an approach could drive more competition into the high end server market, it still leaves the bulk of ARM’s commercial business looking like a poor relation. It is hard to believe that the cores targeted at handset processors and embedded applications will get the same love from Nvidia as Neoverse, so licensees will fear that, even if Nvidia keeps the business going, they will not see the same levels of innovation and investment that their cores have enjoyed in the past.

And if it does envisage a microcontroller-to-server platform and revenues, it needs significant buy-in from the ARM community, and there are some obvious heavyweight members which will have significant conflicts of interest in supporting an IP framework that is fully controlled by a rival. Qualcomm, Marvell and others do not just compete with Nvidia for individual contracts, they put forward an entirely different architectural philosophy built around their key areas of expertise. So even if Nvidia preserves ARM’s licensing business and runs it as a fully separate business, no Chinese walls will be high enough to stop the gradual seeping of the Nvidia view of the word into the ARM roadmap.

Apple and Qualcomm are just two ARM licensees which have their own GPU roadmaps and would not welcome a convergence of ARM Mali with Nvidia’s cores. Other ARM licensees, like Marvell, compete head-on with Nvidia in server and infrastructure chips. And still more ARM customers will question whether ARM will be allowed to prioritize development of cores in markets that do not interest Nvidia, which could result in weaker offerings for licensees in those markets. Ironically, the smartphone sector could be particularly vulnerable to any diverting of resources towards Nvidia’s key areas of focus. It is unlikely that Nvidia will try to re-enter that space, and the growth in the market is declining, so the secret of ARM’s huge success could find itself on the sidelines.

All this will send some ARM licensees looking for alternatives once current contracts, and technology generations, come near their end, and ARM will certainly lose some of the close partner cooperations which have helped it to enhance its cores in so many directions. For a chip company to work with ARM on a development that accelerates progress for the whole industry is a very different matter from handing over key expertise to a single competitor.

October 2020

TIP’s blueprints and new groups aim to make open RAN truly deployable

Telecom Infra Project (TIP) had established a strong pattern of using its annual European conference to mobilize major operators to champion, and progress, the open networks cause. This year’s event was virtual, but still made a big impact, with Vodafone continuing its tradition of using the summit to call out the strongest open RAN suppliers. TIP itself, among other things, announced a new Open RAN project group, and a set of blueprints which could be critical to making the new open multivendor networks deployable by the mass of operators.

The new project group brings together two separate RAN efforts and will be chaired by Vodafone and T-Mobile USA, with participation from Bharti Airtel, BT, China Unicom, Intel, Ooredoo, Smartfren, TPG and Vodafone Idea. There will be several sub-groups to ensure mobile operator requirements and priorities, as filtered through TIP’s membership, are fully supported.

The new project group has set out its objectives as disaggregation of the components of the RAN, development of common requirements and vendor roadmaps, lowering of  integration risk and cost, and driving RAN automation via external applications at the network edge.

The component sub-groups will focus on individual OpenRAN components:

  • Radio unit (RU) – defining the RU white box hardware platforms for 4G/5G
  • Distributed Unit (DU) & Centralized Unit (CU) – white box hardware for 4G/5G
  • RAN Intelligence & Automation (RIA) – productize AI/ML use cases for Massive MIMO, such as beam optimization, radio resource management and self-organizing networks (SON).

Segment sub-groups will work on integrated RAN solutions for specific network use cases to improve the business case for deployment. These include:

  • Outdoor – to address coverage and capacity requirements, performance and features for outdoor macro base stations
  • Indoor – to define requirements, performance and features for indoor 5G NR small cells

Andy Dunkin, senior manager at Vodafone Group’s Mobile Access Centre of Excellence, said: “The streamlined OpenRAN structure is a significant opportunity to drive scale and support vendors to more quickly deliver products to the market. We look forward to the Project Group delivering harmonised requirements and proven commercial solutions to support our network deployment objectives.”

TIP has sometimes suffered from perceived crises of identity. It has been portrayed as a rival to the O-RAN Alliance (or the Open Networking Foundation with its new SD-RAN effort). In fact, it works with both groups, and is not, at heart, a definer of standards. It does develop technology, but only where it sees gaps in what is being created elsewhere, and would rather take what O-RAN and others have defined, and make that part of a clear roadmap to commercial, affordable deployment.

Hence the focus on deployment blueprints and the distillation of operator requirements which makes TIP more like GSMA (from which some of its executives hail) than a standards body.

Dave Hutton, TIP’s chief engineer, said in an interview that, rather than duplicating O-RAN or ONF effort, “we want to pull together those individual pieces of the jigsaw that those organizations are working in and help to piece together the overall picture of what the product looks like.”

Another area of confusion can be that the agendas of Facebook, TIP’s founding father, and major operator supporters like Vodafone and Telefónica  can seem unaligned. The former wants to bring very low cost connectivity to the next billion, while MNOs want to reduce the cost of expanding their existing mobile networks and services, to boost profitability.

Both of these aims require a radical reduction in the cost of deploying and running wireless networks, but the nature of those end-to-end roll-outs will be different. Operators are racing to support ever-more complex 4G and 5G use cases profitably, while Facebook’s universal coverage goal could be based on very simplified equipment and capabilities. And as Rakuten’s landmark roll-out demonstrates, multivendor open networks can initially be complex and expensive to integrate, which raises a question mark over the cost reductions of early adopters, while they can also not avoid the high costs of marketing in mature markets.

All this means that ease of deployment is critical. Some operators, like Rakuten or Vodafone, have deep pockets and the commercial motivation, and technological expertise, to deploy innovative architectures at an early stage, even if the purely financial pay-offs come later.

The majority of MNOs have no such luxury, but will be more likely to adopt open RAN if they have simple, standard processes to follow.

In future, these will include equipment whose common interfaces get operators closer to plug-and-play installation, doing away with the need for systems integration. Operators will be able to choose virtual network functions (VNFs) from an app store, such as the Rakuten Communications Platform store, and download them smoothly to any radio or server.

This vision is for the future, however, but as other organizations such as the GSMA and Small Cell Forum have shown in the past, confidence and adoption can be boosted significantly by more immediate, pragmatic approaches. Notably, integration and deployment blueprints offer MNOs a tried and tested set of common steps to take to implement an open network, based on real efforts by other operators, and on consensus achieved with vendors, regulators and other involved parties such as civil engineers.

The blueprints will be defined by Solution Groups, which will build on the work by Project Groups to design disaggregated network frameworks based on open standards such as O-RAN’s. Key elements of the blueprints will be pre-integration of key network elements and functions, from TIP and partners; and integration and interoperability testing processes for specific deployment scenarios. The aim is to provide common processes and best practice for at least the most common scenarios, in order to reduce cost and time to market.

This will not only be important to MNOs which lack the engineering resources or budget of the major telcos, but also to non-traditional cellular network deployers such as private network operators, enterprises, webscalers and neutral hosts. The interest in the USA’s CBRS spectrum shows there is real demand to deploy 4G and 5G by non-MNOs, and these providers will be able to move more quickly to implement new architectures than most operators – they will be greenfield, and compared to a national macro network, their systems will be more modest in coverage area and traffic load.

The first four Solution Groups include operators and other stakeholders that are particularly keen to boost the open networking momentum and so inject real scale into the ecosystem, with cost and innovation benefits for all, plus an improved balance of power with large OEMs. The four are:

  • Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) including Everis, Facebook, IpT, MTN, Orange, Telefónica and Vodacom
  • Mobile Data Offload including ThinkSmarter, Dublin City Council, Sligo County Council, Facebook, DenseAir and Shoelace Wireless
  • Connected City Infrastructure including Dublin City Council (Smart Docklands), Connect Research, DenseAir, Facebook, Schreder and local mobile operators
  • Open Automation including MTN, Vodafone, Telecom Argentina, Entel, Facebook, Atrinet, GigaMonster and Frinx

Other announcements at the summit included progress updates on deployment of open broadband network gateways and disaggregated cell site gateways.

In addition, TIP provided an update on global Open RAN trials being conducted by its members. There are trials or deployments in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mozambique, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and United Arab Emirates. Despite the global reach, the operators involved are heavily weighted to Europe, and the trials show these big groups seeking to expand in emerging economies as their core markets stagnate, while introducing cost efficiencies.  BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TIM (Telecom Italia), Telefónica and Vodafone are the main names.

Most are looking to prove the technology in markets where the networks are less heavily weighted, and where QoS demands may be lower, than in their home bases, but many also have trials at home (DT for instance), and Vodafone and Telefónica have both pledged to support open RAN in most of their cell sites and markets in the next few years.

The results of the early trials and roll-outs are critical, since they are likely to decide whether MNOs’ definition of ‘open RAN’ goes beyond just common xhaul interfaces between radios, distributed units and central units, and extends to the whole base station architecture. They will also help decide whether ‘open RAN’ really does enable multivendor networks and a large base of suppliers, or whether MNOs will stay in their comfort zone with large OEMs which agree to tick the open RAN boxes.

This is where blueprints such as TIP’s are crucial for the whole ecosystem and the open vision. While open core networks are relatively simple to implement, RANs are not, because of their physical elements, and the demanding and mission-critical nature of their processes. Anything that builds confidence that a multivendor, software-based and disaggregated RAN really could be rolled out more quickly than an integrated network, and with the same level of performance and robustness, will be just as significant to open RAN progress as the specifications themselves.

Vodafone’s open radio unit focus shifts sharply away from incumbents

A highlight of TIP’s annual summit is usually an upbeat commitment from Vodafone (and others) to open RAN architectures. Two years ago, Vodafone and Telefónica named the vendors with the best compliance with their first RFI (request for information), based on TIP principles for open RAN. Last year, Vodafone added the results of a 5G RFI, and pledged that it would open up all its RAN sites, over time, for open platforms, under tender.

This year, it was focusing on RFIs for specific elements of the RAN, namely the radio unit hardware. This is an important evolution of Vodafone’s TIP-based open RAN process – which will be influential on others too. It shows the operator delving into the details of the network architecture, rather than just xhaul interfaces. Those are relatively easy to implement, if only vendors agree to support them in a truly uniform and interoperable way (unlike CPRI).

Far bigger challenges in the virtualized, open RAN lie in the hardware to support the distributed units and radio units. The latter cannot, of course, run on cloud infrastructure, but needs to stay open and software-defined; the former should, in time, run on common edge cloud hardware, but its demanding near-real time functions will make this impractical, at least in macro networks, for some time, without significant performance trade-offs. These are issues that operators need to address with confidence before deploying at scale, as they face the rising traffic loads and QoS assumptions of 5G.

Vodafone announced the companies whose radio unit hardware best met the RFI requirements, and which would have commercial products by mid-2021 or before.

According to Vodafone’s head of network strategy, Yago Tenorio, he is shooting for a unit price of $1,000 or less, and said the most important categories in the RFI results were “multiband radios for Massive MIMO or single-band radios. From our perspective, and according to the requirements we use, these are the companies that you may want to pay attention to”.

That is a major marketing and credibility boost for the companies which performed well in this category. Vodafone is certainly not focusing only on western pioneers, as some operators are in the wake of the Huawei crisis. Among its chosen vendors in this key category are the USA’s RAN software supplier Mavenir, but also Hong Kong-based Comba Telecom and China’s NTS. And unlike its 5G open RAN RFI – which highlighted a tier 1 vendor (Samsung), and raised question marks over the readiness of smaller challengers – this one is all about alternative vendors.

An RU developed by Vodafone itself, based on TIP’s own 40W RU reference design, Evenstar, for the 1.8 GHz band, performed well too, and highlighted the potential for operators to use blueprints and reference designs from bodies like TIP to create their own systems – an approach Reliance Jio may adopt, although so far its inhouse efforts have involved close cooperation with vendors such as Airspan and Samsung. Evenstar hit the sub-$1,000 mark, unlike its rivals, and came third overall in the rankings, putting pressure on the others to reduce their prices.

“We may extend designs to other bands,” said Tenorio. “We might to reach multiband and maybe in the future do a Massive MIMO product.”

“We may also be designing our own baseband into Evenstar,” he added. “Why stop at the radio? Maybe you can have a whole base station that is white-boxed, and you can buy for a very low cost. We will be doing that too.” Vodafone is already working on a project with Dish Network, to design a white box for the open RAN CU and DU.

None of the major radio vendors featured in the list, despite the prominent work that Nokia, in particular, has done recently on open radios.

According to sources of The Mobile Network (TMN), Samsung – which won last year’s 5G open RAN RFI – did enter the RU contest, but was not selected because it did not tick enough boxes.

Tenorio said Vodafone would soon issue an RFI for the DU and CU in an open RAN.

October 2020

Qualcomm rides open vRAN trends to re-enter the macrocell chip market

In September, when Qualcomm announced a deal with Nokia for its small cell chips, we speculated that the company might be preparing to re-enter the macro base station market for the first time for two decades. Now that has been confirmed, with Qualcomm announcing a roadmap to launch three new baseband and RF chipsets which will address macro and micro networks as well as small cells, targeting larger base stations for the first time since it sold its infrastructure chip assets to Ericsson in 1999.

The new SoC products will support open RAN specifications and support 5G on “all key global bands” including sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave.

There are three families on the roadmap, to be available for sampling in mid-2022. These will power radio units (RUs), distributed units (DUs) and distributed radio units (DRUs – which integrate the RU and DU in a single box). So far, this is a statement of intent rather than a detailed launch – no precise specifications are currently being shared and the products will be under development for the next year.

What is known is that the SoCs will incorporate Qualcomm’s 5G Modem-RF System with baseband, transceiver, RF front end and antenna panels, and will disaggregated RANs with functionality split between the RU and DU. They will be applicable to all base station sizes from macrocells with Massive MIMO and millimeter wave spectrum, to small cells.

Several operators, many of them leading lights in open RAN, publicly welcomed Qualcomm’s plans, including AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, LG Uplus, NTT Docomo, Rakuten Mobile, Reliance Jio, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Verizon and Vodafone.

The launch reflects the changing economics of the network equipment vendors. Operators’ bid to diversify their supply chains through platforms like open RAN will enable a larger number of base station suppliers. Though the impact is seen first in small cells, some of these newcomers will succeed in launching products for macro vRANs in future, but they will look for merchant chips to reduce their cost and time to market, rather than commissioning proprietary silicon as the major OEMs have traditionally  done.

Even the top vendors are pivoting towards merchant chips as they try to reduce their costs. After running into problems with an FPGA-centric solution it was codeveloping with (reportedly) Intel, Nokia is now working with Marvell, Broadcom and Intel on lower cost SoC platforms for its 5G base stations.

And not only greenfield vendors, but operators themselves, may get into the business of designing RAN equipment. An early customer for Qualcomm’s new radio platforms will be Reliance Jio, which is developing its own 5G platform. Durga Malladi, general manager of 4G/5G at Qualcomm, said: “We recently achieved over a 1Gbps milestone on the Reliance Jio 5G NR product, leveraging our Qualcomm 5G RAN Platforms.”

Such trends will open up new opportunities for Qualcomm, which needs to diversify its business model as its core smartphone SoC market gets squeezed by slowing growth and China’s bid to develop a homegrown semiconductor ecosystem. It did work with Xilinx to launch a platform for servers and cloud-RAN infrastructure, though that is now on the back burner, but a macro RAN portfolio would be closer to Qualcomm’s comfort zone, and further from Intel’s.

Last month, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon said that the 5G infrastructure market was a “big opportunity”, especially because the momentum behind open RAN architectures would encourage diversity in the vendor base, and the use of merchant chips.

Amon said in a statement about the new offerings: “These new solutions, built on our modem and RF expertise, provide foundational technology for high performance infrastructure with cutting edge new features … This means that incumbent infrastructure vendors can complement existing portfolios with new capabilities, and new vendors can participate with open RAN- compatible solutions.”

Gerardo Giaretta, senior director of product management at Qualcomm, said he expected to be competing primarily with Marvell, Xilinx and Broadcom in this space, though as always in network infrastructure, there will also be competition from the OEMs’ lingering tendency to use proprietary designs. To counter this, it will be important for Qualcomm to support greater configurability than it does in its device chipsets.

Marvell has learned this lesson already. Its Octeon Fusion wireless infrastructure processor, which supports integrated base stations or 5G DUs, adds programmable DSP cores and baseband accelerators to the firm’s TX2 processor. Fusion is positioned as an alternative to vendors developing an ASIC inhouse, promising “the performance of an ASIC but still the flexibility of a processor”, as John Schimpf, senior director of product marketing, put it. Both the TX2 and Fusion chips are available in custom varieties which allow equipment makers to integrate their own intellectual property (IP).

This flexibility is key to Marvell’s expanding relationship with its foundational 5G base station customer, Samsung – the companies are developing highly integrated solutions based on Octeon Fusion, with Samsung’s own IP incorporated.

Qualcomm will need to demonstrate similar cooperation and flexibility to reassure the large OEMs that they will be able to retain competitive differentiation even if they use merchant chips.

But of course, it has many advantages to build on. It has been establishing relationships with the radio vendors in several developments in millimeter wave and Giaretta sees tight integration of different bands as a key differentiator. “If you look at every single product out there right now and in the foreseeable future, they kind of have sub-6 GHz in one line in the roadmap and mmWave in the other line in the roadmap — different part of the website, different product, different people working on it,” he said.

He also pointed to Qualcomm’s expertise, derived from the smartphone market, in power efficiency and tight integration of multiple components.

He explained that, while the Qualcomm’s SoCs support all the open RAN interfaces, they will also be deployable in single-vendor and closed architectures, depending on the preferences of the vendors or operators. “It can really depend on how the network will eventually evolve and how the mobile network operator will actually deploy the network, and which interfaces they will open first,” he said.

November 2020

Ericsson’s unveils 5G Cloud-RAN, but remains cautious on open networks

Ericsson is taking a very different approach to the open, virtualized RAN, to that of Nokia. The defining differences, currently, between these two mighty rivals are their future RAN propositions, and their approach to enterprise. Nokia moved more quickly into fully software-based networks than its rivals, and then adopted the persona of open RAN’s cheerleader to help offset its 5G difficulties. It has also been more wholehearted about selling services to enterprises, with or without the help of its operator customers, and has only intensified this effort as its core business has run into challenges.

Ericsson pulled back from direct-to-enterprise sales when its current CEO took the helm, though it has been steadily building up its industrial 5G offerings and may relax its view in future. Indeed, a clear target for its new Cloud-RAN products is likely to be enterprise and campus networks.

In the 5G RAN, it has performed strongly in the first, conventional deployments, particularly with its 5G-ready Ericsson Radio System. For the next wave of 5G, it faces bigger dilemmas, one of which is how far to assume operators really will deploy large-scale, open, disaggregated vRANs in their macro networks within 3-5 years.

It has unveiled its 5G virtualized RAN portfolio, a few months after Nokia and Samsung launched theirs, but it is notably more cautious about open RAN architectures. There is plenty of virtualization, but very limited openness. In fact, there is a clear line from Ericsson’s previous launches of cloud network systems to this disaggregated, 5G-centric platform (it is easy to forget that the big vendors have already launched Cloud-RANs for 4G, even if they have been only rarely deployed at scale, and Ericsson has been more cautious than Nokia in this area).

The cautious approach to open RAN is in line with the Swedish company’s recent stance on this topical subject. A member of the O-RAN Alliance, it has nevertheless raised concerns – which are bound to seem self-interested, but do carry weight with operators – about potential security and performance trade-offs. Its attitude seems to be to watch and wait, trying to offer a reality check on the wildest hopes of the fully open network, and so defending the closed ecosystem that has served it so well.

In the greenfield and localized (enterprise or rural) networks, this caution is a risk because challenger vendors, as well as Nokia, could establish an unassailable position in a market where there are no entrenched suppliers and where the performance and scale requirements are far lower than in the macro RAN. In that heavily loaded 5G macro network, the caution looks far more realistic, however self-motivated it may be.

Launching the new Cloud-RAN offerings, Per Narvinger, head of product area Networks at Ericsson, told SDxCentral: “Many of our customers are still not even fully evaluating open RAN”. While some customers were running trials with Ericsson and others, most had yet to consider virtualized RAN seriously, let alone a fully open architecture.

Where the new portfolio does tick the modern 5G boxes is in the cloud platform. The first family members are a virtualized distributed unit (vDU) and centralized unit (vCU), both of which can run on any Intel-based COTS hardware without special acceleration and are for low band 5G spectrum. The hardware can be Ericsson’s own boxes, but it may also be the operator’s edge servers, or a third party cloud – a significant change of emphasis from previous Cloud-RAN announcements.

There is also a Network Gateway that interfaces between the vDU and already installed Ericsson remote radio heads. The gateway translates the vDU’s native eCPRI fronthaul protocol into CPRI, in order to support legacy radios. The gateway also hosts the Ericsson Spectrum Sharing (ESS) technology, which allows 4G spectrum to be allocated dynamically to 4G or 5G, greatly boosting spectral efficiency. This has been an important differentiator for Ericsson 5G, since it appears to have stolen a lengthy march on its competitors in getting this technology to market. That will be particularly significant for operators with limited access to midband spectrum, such as Verizon and AT&T, or which want to launch 5G before new spectrum auctions are held, like Vodafone Ziggo in The Netherlands.

The focus is all on sub-GHz spectrum for now, since those networks have limited capacity and therefore lower traffic and computation demands than 5G RANs in midband or millimeter wave spectrum. More units will follow eventually, but Ericsson pointed out that some vDU implementations, especially those required to support demanding near-real time operations such as dynamic spectrum sharing, may stretch the definition of ‘COTS’, and require cloud hardware with sophisticated (and possibly expensive) acceleration.

The Cloud-RAN systems will be available in late 2021, by which time it is possible that some of the performance concerns about COTS hardware for vDUs may have been addressed by the chip providers. This will be important for driving down the cost of Cloud-RAN, which is a significant barrier to some operators.

Narvinger told LightReading: “It would be sad if we build something that is only for one purpose and we cannot do it more cost effectively than with general-purpose hardware.” But he did acknowledge that there are other potential benefits to a cloud platform – “you can potentially have a richer ecosystem around the solution, and you can leverage automation and AI in a larger way”.

The vCU can also use the 3GPP F1 interface to Ericsson’s midband ERS and to its higher band mini-macro base stations, which can be mounted on street furniture. The key in all this is to introduce Cloud-RAN gradually, where it is required to boost performance and flexibility, alongside an existing RAN. That is an attractive prospect for many operators, since it does not entail the risk and disruption of a big bang migration or even a rip-and-replace exercise – and of course, it is very attractive to Ericsson, since it defends its installed base and keeps the Cloud-RAN transformation firmly single-vendor.

However, it is sure to tick open interface boxes where these are required by operators for the reassurance that they are not really locked-in. And Ericsson is not dismissing the O-RAN Alliance, of which it is an active member. In line with Ekholm’s view, executives said the vCU was designed to support some O-RAN interfaces, notably to the O-RAN Non-Real Time Radio Interface Controller (NRT-RIC), when this becomes commercialized (or ‘if’ it does, was the subtext).

The O-RAN Alliance’s fronthaul interface may be the most basic enabler of an open RAN, allowing radio units and distributed or centralized units from different suppliers to interoperate. But its more disruptive and significant contribution to the architecture is the RIC, which moves many functions traditionally embedded in the base station up into a higher layer of software based around xApps. These could come from different vendors from the virtualized base station hardware and software, and as such are a target for suppliers from many fields, and a potential threat to a key area of expertise and control for the traditional RAN vendors. So far, Nokia has worked hard to neutralize that threat by contributing much of the seed code for the O-RAN Alliance RIC, though a greater challenge may come from a separate, more operator-driven implementation being driven by the Open Networking Foundation, called SD-RAN.

Ericsson, unlike Nokia, has not yet sought to seize control of the RIC itself. It is taking the view that the non-real time RIC is an area which can logically be abstracted from the base station and even opened up, hence the support in its new vCU – indeed, it says it already supports many of these functions in software anyway. But when it comes to the near-real time RIC, the centerpiece of O-RAN’s disruptive efforts, it believes there are too many performance and reliability trade-offs compared to embedded solutions (and it may well be right). Ultra-low latency, ultra-reliable services such as dynamic spectrum sharing will struggle to be fully supported in xApps living above the base station, argues Ericsson.

And for now, even the non-real time RIC is a future consideration for operators, it says. The concern for MNOs with existing RANs is to introduce vRAN in a complementary manner, and to make the new vCUs and vDUs work smoothly with existing network management systems (NMS). It will study which open interfaces make most sense in future, but it seems likely that the O-RAN Alliance’s O1 interface to the non-real time RIC will be commercialized in the near future but not the E1 interface to the near-real time RIC.

December 2020

 

AWS Re:invent – edge is central again, with risks and rewards for MNOs

A year ago, at its Re:invent developer conference, Amazon AWS announced an Wavelengths, a proposition designed to exploit the increasingly important intersection between edge computing and 5G.

Verizon was the first to sign up for the platform, which sees AWS deploy its edge computing infrastructure in operators’ hub locations, such as central offices or metro data centers, and harness their 5G connectivity. The arrangement gives the operator access to AWS’s vast developer base, while the cloud giant gains a rapid way to distribute its cloud into ever-more remote locations by riding on operators’ assets, rather than taking on a build-out which runs counter to the centralizing, hyperscale economics of the cloud model.

Since then, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud have also announced edge/5G platforms for telcos and sought to strengthen their presence in the 5G market, while taking advantage of operators’ superior network of sites suited to edge computing and storage. As AWS celebrated another year of re:invent – virtual in 2020 of course – the conference was even more edge-centric than those of the previous two years, which had seen AWS stake its claim to the on-premise enterprise edge as well as the telco mobile edge.

More operators announced cooperations with AWS, and there was even edge/5G on the horizon in an announcement with Apple. But the Amazon division was filling in the gaps in its portfolio too, ensuring it has a solution for every edge, from those in metro locations to those in far-flung enterprise buildings. The operators will have to work hard to preserve the advantage they currently have, with their sites and their strong expertise in running very distributed networks of assets and information.

Others will start to build out edge networks to tempt the webscalers, and while the MNOs will dominate 5G, there will be rising impact from challengers in their value chain, such as private network operators. And while large numbers of small data centers are not the webscalers’ natural model, they have many other cards to play, including their brands, customer bases, developer ecosystems and cash.

Operators must take care to build strong enterprise relationships in these early days of edge computing, playing on their 5G, their low latency capabilities and their multicloud approach – and hope that is enough to protect their place in the edge landscape from multi-pronged pressures, from their web partners, from the rising breed of multicloud enablers based on software-defined networking (SDN), and from alternative enterprise 5G providers.

December 2020

Ericsson warns of profit hit from Q1 as a result of Samsung patent dispute

Unlike some years, 2020 has not seen a high level of large patent disputes in the cellular industry, but Ericsson may be setting the tone for 2021, filing a lawsuit against Samsung in Texas, and claiming that operating income of between $120m and $177m per quarter are at stake.

The two vendors last clashed in the patent courts in 2012, but settled their differences two years later. This time, Ericsson is accusing Samsung – which is increasingly contending for a place at the top table in the 5G RAN market – of “violating contractual commitments to negotiate in good faith” on the renewal of certain patent licences.

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. It arose when negotiations over renewing a global cross-licensing agreement for both firms’ essential patents came to a stalemate. Ericsson accuses its rival of violating contractual commitments to negotiate on licence patents on a FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) basis, while Ericsson claims to have upheld its side of that mutual commitment. FRAND terms, governed by French law, are at the basis of all patent licensing norms, but can be rather vaguely defined in legal terms.

The Swedish firm warned that several licence renewal negotiations “may delay the payment of IP royalties if they extend beyond the expiry of existing licences into an unlicensed period.” Those delays, combined with legal costs, could impact quarterly operating income by between SEK1bn ($120m) and SEK1.5bn ($177m), starting from the first quarter of 2021, warned Ericsson.

Janardan Menon, an analyst at Liberum, told Reuters that royalties from Ericsson’s patent portfolio are expected to bring in about one-third of its forecast operating profit for 2021, of SEK29bn ($3.4bn). The lawsuit could reduce that figure by 20% per quarter, he estimates. That sent Ericsson’s share price down by 7%, though if the case is settled, and the licences renewed, in reasonably short order, unpaid royalty fees will be recovered.

Ericsson says it initiated negotiations for a new licence in January 2019, and this included a balancing payment from Samsung to Ericsson, “reflecting the parties’ relative sales and the value of Ericsson’s essential patents as compared to Samsung’s,” the complaint says. It claims that both parties “understood that Samsung would owe Ericsson a substantial balancing payment”.

Ericsson says it has more than 54,000 patents worldwide, many essential, and reinvests many of the royalty fees back into its annual R&D spend of $4bn to $5bn, which in turn helps contribute to future standards.

“It has become clear Samsung had no intention of negotiating in good faith towards concluding an agreement with Ericsson on FRAND terms and conditions,” instead insisting on a below-fair royalty payment, the complaint continues. That also effectively deprives Ericsson of its right to an equal global licence for Samsung’s essential patents on FRAND terms.

“Without 4G and 5G technology and Ericsson’s inventions incorporated therein, smartphones and other mobile devices would not be able to provide the constant on-the-go access to video, streaming media, and gaming that consumers expect today,” Ericsson wrote in its complaint.

A Samsung spokesperson said the company would review the complaint and “determine an appropriate response”.

Ericsson also said in its statement that operating income could also be affected next year by other factors unrelated to Samsung, notably “current geopolitical conditions impacting handset sales volumes, as is the shift from 4G to 5G handsets”.