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19 January 2021

O-RAN vendors line up in a bid to fill the vacuum left by Huawei exile

Nature abhors a vacuum and so do vendors peddling O-RAN products, as they manoeuver to exploit Huawei’s exit from emerging 5G roll-outs, especially in North America and some parts of Europe, where restrictions on the Chinese vendor’s equipment have been introduced.

At the same time these vendors must overcome the reluctance on the part of some operators to take the risk of switching horses midstream and trusting unproven suppliers and technologies. Such operators are more inclined to stick with the few remaining mainstream cellular vendors, primarily the Nordic duo Ericsson and Nokia, though Samsung is rising up the ranks and accounting now for about 12% of 5G network sales.

We reported last week that some operators, such as Three in the UK, now regard the 5G horse as having already bolted, pushing O-RAN products downstream to the next generation of cellular deployments, or into secondary networks such as enterprise systems. Yet others such as Vodafone are more committed to O-RAN, the UK-headquartered giant having pledged to support open architectures in 20% of sites across its whole footprint by 2027.

It seems there is a rough divide opening up between the top tier operators, especially European ones such as Telefónica, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom promoting open RAN architectures through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), and slightly smaller carriers that are more uncertain. This reflects the major telcos being willing to do the heavy lifting required to get an O-RAN ecosystem off the ground, in the expectation that will deliver ROI (return on investment) later through increased competition and choice.

Deutsche Telekom, for example, has just announced it will deploy O-RAN technology in 2021 on a small scale to begin with in Neubrandenburg, a town of about 65,000 residents north of Berlin dubbed ‘ORAN-Town’. This will feature a disaggregated RAN at 25 O-RAN-compatible sites providing both 4G and 5G services. Partners on the project include Dell, Fujitsu, NEC, Nokia and Mavenir.

“Open RAN has gained considerable momentum,” said Claudia Nemat, Telekom’s CTO. “The technical standards and interfaces aim at an open and fully interoperable RAN.” But of course, large MNOs – especially in Europe – have a long history of using support for new architectures or ecosystems as a way to put pressure on their established vendors, to reduce prices or accelerate new developments. And support for emerging open groups such as the O-RAN Alliance will not inevitably benefit alternative vendors –

Nemat herself singled out Nokia as a promoter of O-RAN to emphasize that the traditional infrastructure vendors are not all defensive over this.

O-RAN’s stock has also been rising recently in the USA as a result of the Huawei exclusion, and the related push, in some political quarters, to try to rebuild an America-centric 5G industry and intellectual property base, at the expense of China. Traction was slow to begin with even as Europe’s big operators roared ahead with O-RAN trials and even one or two deployments. But US operators have shown mounting interest, with all three major carriers – AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile – as well as the far smaller newcomer Dish Wireless, signing up to the O-RAN Alliance.

Most recently a group of US senators introduced a bill to channel over $1bn into 5G equipment from vendors based in the USA or other non-Chinese locations, while directing the FCC to set aside a minimum of $750m in a new O-RAN R&D fund.

A leading US O-RAN evangelist is Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a not-for-profit thinktank based in Washington DC. He recently argued that US operators would benefit in the long term from being forced to purge Huawei, and that backing O-RAN or an equivalent open platform would stimulate competition.

Of course this argument ignores the fact that Huawei and ZTE have been barred from national cellular networks since these were categorized as critical infrastructure during the Obama administration, forcing Sprint to rip and replace its Huawei 4G gear. However, there are many small regional and rural carriers which have, until recently, been allowed to choose Chinese equipment, and are now looking for financial support to make the swap.

Brake did suggest though that this situation had arisen through negligence on the part of the US telco vendor community in allowing an effective triopoly and now almost duopoly to emerge. “Until the operators buy, this Open RAN technology won’t take off and it does need US vendors to follow the line because at the end of the day they’ve essentially created this duopoly that now exists in the US,” he said. “And I would say it’s in their best interest to find a way out of it.”

Among the emerging vendors Brake is so keen to encourage are Mavenir, DenseAir, WaveMobile and Airspan Networks. All of these feature in plans by Telefónica O2 to introduce O-RAN technology in the UK, with commercial deployment anticipated within two years. O2 cited flexible open and software-defined network capabilities that enable operators to use multiple vendors and not be locked into a single provider.

With Mavenir, the operator will focus specifically on deployments in highly dense areas in London to enhance coverage and capacity in large public facilities such as stadiums and shopping centers. But it also plans to assess O-RAN in rural areas with sparse user populations in larger macrocells.

With DenseAir, O2 is looking at small cells for both 4G and 5G with O-RAN fronthaul interfaces, and is carrying out trials and tests at Millbrook Proving Ground, a large UK vehicle testing center, for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) applications.

“DenseAir and Airspan Networks, our technology partners, have built a unique hyper-dense pervasive 4G and 5G O-RAN based solution at Millbrook. The O-RAN deployment which utilizes over 70 radio nodes, 19 kilometers of fiber and millimeter wave fronthaul delivers network capacity at a scale never seen before at any proving ground, allowing the validation of future CAV use cases,” said Paul Senior, CEO of DenseAir.

Airspan is a long-established challenger vendor which made its name in fixed wireless markets and small cells, and is backed by Japan’s Softbank. It has identified the departure of Huawei as a motivator for smaller vendors to compete for business in emerging 5G infrastructures. While they found it hard to compete on both price and quality with Huawei, they feel better placed now, especially if encouraged by governments, regulators and operators themselves.

“We tended to exit markets where Huawei was dominant,” said Airspan CEO Eric Stonestrom. “We’re now doubling down on the UK. The geopolitics is in the right direction with Huawei being removed.” The company plans to double its UK workforce to more than 200 engineers by the middle of 2022 and plans “aggressive” commercial expansion to win business from the country’s major telcos as they look to smaller O-RAN suppliers to build 5G networks.