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4 October 2022

MWC Americas: Open RAN and public cloud take center stage

Special Report: Open RAN at MWC

Last week saw Mobile World Congress (MWC) staging its Americas edition in Las Vegas, Nevada. While a small event compared to the mothership in Barcelona, MWC Americas nonetheless generated significant buzz and a range of interesting launches.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest topics – in terms of solid developments and of hype – were Open RAN, the metaverse and the increasingly intertwined worlds of telecoms networks and cloud. The hyperscalers were prominent, and AWS and Google managed to combine all three of these themes in their discussions, as this issue’s round-up of Open RAN and other MWC news indicates. Providers of 5G network software are flocking round the public cloud platforms now as operators become increasingly open to using public or hybrid cloud for at least some network functions. Rakuten Symphony, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless all announced implementations of their Open RAN offerings for at least one public cloud.

This is not just about moving core, and even RAN, functions to the cloud, but about increasingly strategic co-development partnerships between the most advanced operators and cloud giants. For instance, Las Vegas saw SK Telecom of Korea announcing a deal with AWS to co-develop a cloud-based computer vision platform – a clear indication of how a forward-thinking operator can look beyond 5G connectivity use cases and play a proactive role in driving whole new platforms, that are 5G-enabled, but could open up wider commercial roles for the telco.

In Open RAN, the race is on to convince increasingly cautious brownfield operators that solutions will be mature and affordable, even for 5G macro networks, before the 6G era dawns. There were plenty of interesting product and services announcements, and Rakuten Symphony, in particular, was putting more flesh on the bones of its platform. However, deeper probing reveals that the innovations on show are far from being deployable in high end networks, especially those that need to support high orders or MIMO and beamforming. This is to be expected, and operators have plenty of in-building, city and rural spaces to fill, to keep the Open RAN business developing for a few years, until the platform really can address every kind of 5G roll-out. It would, however, be helpful if the suppliers were more open about the timescales and roadmap to achieve that goal – in discussing MWC, the most commonly heard complaint from the operators we interviewed was the lack of realism about macro 5G challenges and costs.

But scale is starting to seem attainable, at least in the small cell, rural and mini-macro segments. Symphony’s distributed unit is made by Foxconn, a manufacturer that has a track record for helping to commoditize devices and infrastructure elements. And Qualcomm’s promised Open RAN chips are now on the horizon, promised for next year and also capable of accelerating the development of a broad ecosystem.

Open RAN and Symphony even announced a new supporter from the North American market – Telus of Canada – at the event, which would be very welcome to the Rakuten division. North America is the biggest potential market for 5G RAN, and there is heavy political support for open platforms, but Dish, the main at-scale deployer so far, has only used small pieces of the Symphony portfolio, while AT&T and Verizon seem to have their own agenda, working mainly with their established RAN suppliers.

Signs of progress certainly, in a region that was always going to be very focused on Open RAN, but the industry should note the operators’ impatience with unclear, or even obfuscated, roadmaps.