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Operators wrest back control from vendors in the 5G balance of power

One of the interesting facets of the 5G era is the way major mobile operators are seeking to wrest control back from the incumbent vendors. It is reminiscent of an earlier age of telecoms, when operators like AT&T and the European and Japanese incumbents designed their own technology, right down to telephones. As the industry developed, most MNOs discarded significant homegrown development of networks and devices (with a few exceptions like NTT Docomo). Some still invested heavily in R&D in order to help shape the future of their services – the UK’s BT is a good example – but at the commercial stage, they turned to their vendors to deliver the equipment.

As the vendors have consolidated, operators have increasingly found themselves in an uncompetitive supply chain, which they have struggled to broaden, because they have been locked in to end-to-end, supplier-specific networks. The radio standards may be uniform, but the networks have been implemented in highly individual ways. Vendors have made proprietary ‘enhancements’, as well as their own unique interpretations of supposedly open interfaces like CPRI – the result being incompatibilities which make it hard for operators to mix and match equipment in the same network, or to move easily to a new vendor.

The catalyst for change is not really the 5G radio, but the broader platform which will surround it, and enable most of its high value use cases. Virtualization of the network – running many of the network’s digital functions on commoditized servers or switches – opens the ecosystem to new vendors, and to open source platforms. The addition of software-defined networking (SDN) and associated orchestration technologies, to manage and optimize all the virtual network functions automatically and on the fly, further breaks down the traditional vendor landscape. It is not given that a major network equipment OEM will also be a strong supplier of SDN controllers.

So operators will have more choices and a different set of supplier relationships, and many are working hard to foster start-ups via their incubators, or programs like Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project (TIP), in order to shake up the supply chain.

Even more radically, some operators are looking to define the new technologies themselves, and seize back control not just from incumbent suppliers but from the vendor world in general. This goes further than just increasing R&D to support inhouse technologies. Now operators are looking to turn those inhouse systems into platforms which other carriers can adopt, and which will, given sufficient momentum, force vendors to support frameworks which have been defined by the operators themselves, not by suppliers or even traditional standards bodies. Finland’s Elisa, for instance, is marketing its homegrown self-organizing network (SON) to other MNOs.

Management and orchestration (MANO) of the virtualized network has been a particular focus, because it is such a critical point of control of the future platform. AT&T, China Mobile, Telefónica and SK Telecom have all placed internal MANO developments into open source initiatives (the first two into ONAP, Telefonica into ETSI Open Source MANO, SK into its own T-MANO project). All are hoping to increase their influence over how 5G era fixed and mobile platforms will look, by gathering sufficient industry support to become de facto standards.

Events over the past week have highlighted this gathering trend, which is spreading beyond MANO. Another AT&T-inspired project, ORAN, is gaining new operator support, while Open RAN capabilities are starting to appear in RFIs. Meanwhile, more MNOs want to make their influence felt and ensure these future architectures suit their needs. Reliance Jio, the disruptive greenfield MNO in India, has taken a fast track in this direction, acquiring Radisys, which will bring it various 5G-related assets, notably its prominent position in one of the most influential operator-driven open source projects, CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter).

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