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5 August 2019

Open networks: TIP’s microwave project and Docomo’s ORAN radio

Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the ORAN Alliance are two of the most prominent organizations which are seeking to disrupt the mobile network supply chain with open architectures and interfaces. Both have announced new developments in the past week, TIP with a new project group focused on more compact, power-efficient microwave solutions; ORAN with a win at NTT Docomo.

The new group announced by TIP – which was initiated by Facebook to bring commodity hardware and cloud economics to the telecoms network, and now has significant MNO support – is called OpenBox Microwave. It aims to define specifications and reference designs for a single box integrating both access router and microwave backhaul technology, which would reduce cost and power compared to current microwave products – essential for future very dense 5G networks – while the open specs would lower barriers to entry for new vendors.

The new group will be co-chaired by Norman Yeoh of Malaysian operator Axiata and Farhan Siddiqui of Facebook and is supported by Deutsche Telekom, TIM Brazil, microwave equipment supplier Aviat Networks, SIAE Microelectronics and Commscope.

Its target is to develop a multi-frequency white box combining router and microwave functions, to reduce the amount of hardware needed in a dense urban network. It will also combine optical and wireless functionalities for software-defined networking (SDN). This is part of a wider trend to try to harness the larger bandwidths of higher frequency 5G spectrum to support access and backhaul together where there is no affordable fiber, especially for small cells.

Siddiqui said that, as operators move to 5G and add more cells, the network needs more frequency channels to achieve higher throughput and density in urban areas, which with existing microwave requires more hardware, which is “time consuming to install and requires dedicated resources every time a capacity increase is required”. He told SDxCentral: “This group is aiming to help solve this challenge by combining the router and microwave hardware into one solution.”

This will reduce cost and complexity in urban locations and can also be helpful in more remote areas with limited power capacity. Critically for the economics of outdoor small cells, it will reduce the number of sites operators need to negotiate and pay for.

“Most service providers rely on structures owned by other parties to place their equipment,” Siddiqui said. “In many markets, placing this equipment requires extensive real estate processes.”

By combining multiple frequency bands into one chassis, there will be reduced need for multiple antennas and chassis on a site as microwave backhaul requirements grow. “This will be especially important as today service providers must install two antennas and at least more than one radio to meet 4G and 5G requirements,” he added.

The group aims to define product requirements and use cases first and start to develop technical specifications later this year. It will present an update on the project at the TIP Summit in Amsterdam in November.

Meanwhile, Fujitsu has developed a software-defined radio (SDR) for Japanese operator NTT Docomo which supports the ORAN Alliance’s specifications. The group hailed this as an example of how open interfaces can lower the barriers to new vendors entering the closeted world of the RAN, providing alternatives to Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and Samsung. Increasingly, this will push the big OEMs to support those open interfaces and interoperate with others – Nokia and Samsung have already contributed actively to ORAN, and Ericsson has joined, though none has announced commercial equipment based on the standard yet.

Fujitsu hasn’t quite done that either since its product has been developed specifically for Docomo, with no word yet on whether it will be more widely commercialized. This is a common pattern in Japan, where the MNOs, and Docomo in particular, work closely with local suppliers on semi-custom technologies for their very advanced network architectures, as well as with the main suppliers. Fujitsu and NEC have been part of Docomo’s supply chain since 3G, but scarcely sell RAN equipment (except small cells) outside Japan.

Fujitsu hopes that supporting the ORAN specifications will broaden its appeal and allow operators outside Japan to buy its equipment with the reassurance that it will interoperate with others.

Although the SDR is proprietary to Fujitsu, allowing Docomo to implement different radio technologies in a flexible way, it will support fronthaul links to centralized baseband units based on ORAN. Its 5G radio units have built-in antennas equipped with beamforming, which reduces deployment time and site space.

Fujitsu also believes open interfaces will make cellular networks easier and more affordable for non-MNOs to deploy, as spectrum is awarded to more entities, or in shared spectrum. It is targeting 5G private or neutral host network providers in industrial fields, including smart factories and remote medical care.