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22 November 2019

Progress to open vendor ecosystem, but same MNOs are in charge

It is almost four years since Facebook initiated the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), with the goal of extending the scalable cloud-based economics of its Open Compute Project to the telecoms networks. It has expanded well beyond the social media giant and its goals of bringing affordable connectivity to ‘the next billion’, though the overall objective of achieving a fully open, disaggregated network on cloud infrastructure remains the same.

Large operators, especially European leaders like Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, BT and Vodafone have become very active, as they seek to open up their supply chains and drive network costs down for the 5G era. At the TIP Summit in Amsterdam last week, it was clear how far the group has progressed. A year ago, when the event was in London, commercial reality came a big step closer when Telefónica and Vodafone announced vendors which complied with their TIP-based RFI (request for information).

In 2019, those early moves towards fully deployable networks have proved to be the basis of something far larger. Most significantly, Vodafone has thrown down the gauntlet to its traditional vendors and issued and RFQ (request for quotes) for a Europe-wide deployment of open RAN cells across its whole footprint – more than 100,000 sites. It also announced a new RFI for a 5G New Radio cell, and is now working on this with Samsung.

Even this does not mean TIP is a fully fledged operator option for large-scale commercial  5G yet. While its OpenRAN specifications are the most mature of its many projects, and the basis of Vodafone’s and Telefónica’s series of field trials this year, they are mainly being used in small cells and rural environments, and are still far from being implemented in a large MNO’s main network. More choice of vendors and more robust field trials will be needed to drive that level of confidence.

Large European MNOs seize TIP steering wheel:

At last year’s Summit, there was a strong sense that TIP was developing down two parallel tracks which might not always be compatible. Facebook itself, and some of its allies such as Intel, were heavily focused on enabling open, low cost networks for rural and underserved areas, and implicitly to enable alternative service providers. The European operators, plus other supporters like SK Telecom of Korea, were far more focused on driving down their own costs, and ending vendor lock-ins, to improve the economics of their own roll-outs and implicitly make it harder for new, open-based competitors to compete.

In Amsterdam, the focus was more heavily on the MNOs, but it will be important that the goal of enabling a wider range of service providers, not just a wider range of vendors, is not lost amid all the 5G discussions.

And another important challenge that looms over the achievements of the TIP Summit is the relationship with other groups that are working on open RAN and end-to-end network architectures for the disaggregated, cloud-based 5G era. For the past year, it has been assumed that TIP and other initiatives, particularly the Linux Foundation’s ORAN Alliance, will have to grow closer and enable interworking or even convergence.

Despite positive noises by many stakeholders, and again at the Summit – including expanded collaboration with the Open Networking Foundation – there has been little public, concrete progress in this area, and that will be critical to the success of the open platform, and to avoid the distraction of a battle between ‘rival’ standards. It is vital that TIP finds common cause with other open groups in order to avoid fragmentation of the fledgling open platform, which could limit adoption.

It is also important that it continues to support a variety of vendors, as well as operators. For now, some independent suppliers are doing very well in the TIP trials – Parallel Wireless, Phluido and others. But Vodafone’s choice of Samsung to work on its 5G NR open cell, and the increasing involvement of the big names, raises the question of whether, having achieved their TCO reduction objectives, MNOs will veer back towards their familiar – and now duly chastened – suppliers, enjoying the confidence in their decades of R&D and deployment experience.

Will start-ups really get a look-in at large mobile contracts?

For instance, there was less talk at this Summit, compared to previous ones, about a key and unique element of the TIP, the system of incubating start-ups via TIP Ecosystem Acceleration Centers (TEACs), run by operators such as BT. In September, BT announced the competition to become part of its third wave of TEAC start-ups, and the results were due to be decided on October 19, but there was none of the fanfare at the Summit that has greeted previous awards.

Stefan Pongratz, VP at research firm Dell’Oro Group, summed up the dilemma for new entrants in a research note, writing: “The R&D required to provide a competitive 5G portfolio with the increased complexity in the RAN and core, the increased use of machine learning and automation in services, and the proliferation of new use cases spanning a wide range of industries, will possibly move the needle in the opposite direction and complicate the entry for new entrants.”

Some other developments discussed at the Summit, which are covered in more detail in this special report, include:

  • Members are joining from different parts of the cloud and telecoms ecosystems. Dell is a particularly significant recruit because it is active in other open communities such as the Open Networking Foundation’s CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter) and its own edge-related initiatives. And Dell highlights the way that the mobile operators, the cloud suppliers and the network providers must work together if the 5G platform is to be truly carrier-grade.
  • Testing labs are essential to any would-be open platform, reducing the need for each operator and vendor to carry out tests, and providing confidence that products will be certified to be interoperable. TIP is expanding its community lab program with a dozen locations now actively testing, validating, and integrating new features. And Sprint opened a new testing lab in its Kansas headquarters.
  • Optical transport networks are also an important work area for TIP and Telefónica has committed to deploying the Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) technology, from the Open Optical Packet Transport group, at scale in Germany.
  • The Summit is always the forum to announce a series of new project groups and 2019 lengthened the list considerably, adding new projects related to WiFi, open cellular frameworks, Open RAN 5G New Radio, vRAN fronthaul, open box microwaves, and non-terrestrial connectivity.
  • There were some product launches harnessing TIP specifications, including fixed 5G equipment from Siklu, using the Terragraph platform; and a containerized LTE RAN for cable operators, launched by Altran, Benetel and Phluido. TIP has announced an online marketplace for compliant products, and a badge scheme to show customers where each product stands in terms of development.