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14 July 2020

Samsung unveils full vRAN portfolio, with eyes on O-RAN markets

Hard on the heels of Nokia, which unveiled its big pitch for the emerging O-RAN market, Samsung has also announced plans to make fully virtualized RAN (vRAN) with support for the open RAN interfaces and architecture, commercially available by October.

The Korean vendor is aiming to achieve a global market for its network infrastructure for the first time. In the 4G era, its deployments were largely confined to Korea and to WiMAX technology. In 5G, it has scored early wins in the USA, Canada and elsewhere, especially where it can leverage its advances in fixed wireless access (FWA) and in millimeter wave spectrum. But it has lost its flagship European 4G customer, 3 UK, and is still seeking broad adoption.

With Huawei and ZTE being sidelined in some key markets, Samsung clearly aims to lure operators with three important promises:

  • it is an alternative to Huawei and a counterweight against a Nokia/Ericsson duopoly
  • it will promise to support O-RAN and so ensure future-proofing and interoperability wit other vendors’ kit
  • it will offer the confidence, for operators, of a vendor with deep pockets and high R&D resource, by contrast with some of the O-RAN start-ups

Its first 5G vRAN offering includes virtualized central unit (CU), distributed unit (DU), and software that can run on dedicated hardware – for more demanding, real time processes that require acceleration – or on x86 COT servers. The software is also designed to make it easier for operators to combine different types of hardware and move the network functions between them.

The CU is already in commercial use in Korea, Japan and the USA and the new step is to move the DU to the virtualized architecture – a far more demanding task because the performance of these units, which typically handle low latency and real time tasks, has to be very high. Many operators do not believe COTS hardware can handle the intense signal processing and synchronization that goes into an application like dynamic spectrum sharing. However, Samsung insists that its vRAN can match the performance of a vertically integrated RAN with dedicated hardware, though the DUs will rely on sophisticated accelerators.

Alok Shah, VP of networks strategy at Samsung USA, told SDxCentral: “This idea of moving the functions into x86-based servers, just a whole new ecosystem of hardware that’s available that’s easier to upgrade, easier to obtain, easier to spare — there’s just a whole set of ways that the opex can be substantially improved. “Samsung doesn’t build that equipment but our software runs on top of it.”

The hardware Samsung does provide includes the radio unit (RU), and the company offers a combined RU/DU in a single box, which it calls an access unit. This is mainly designed to reduce cost, space and power in dense millimeter wave networks. Partners include HPE for 5G core software and edge computing, and Qualcomm, Marvell and Xilinx for base station components.

Like many vendors, Samsung has moved away from a purist view of the vRAN, or of cloud-native networks in general, and is presenting operators with a possibly less daunting vision – a pragmatic roadmap in which existing and even new physical elements will coexist with virtualized and cloud-native functions for many years, all coordinated by a single orchestration platform, and with migrations and swaps simplified by adoption of open interfaces.

“Our recommendation is not that every operator run out and deploy vRAN for every portion of their network,” Shah continued in the interview. “You have to consider the processing requirements that a given function takes based on spectrum, based on bandwidth requirements, and so you have to look at the economics of doing that all in software versus kind of more traditional hardware-based approaches.”

He believes, for instance, that vRAN is most economic, and has the biggest impact on  flexibility, in low and middle spectrum bands, while in millimeter wave bands, “dedicated hardware can more cost-effectively support the amount of processing required for large swathes of spectrum and at least 1Gbps speeds on data throughput,” because of the huge processing requirements.

Shah accepts that, even given the current geopolitical pressures and the USA’s thrust behind open RAN architectures, Samsung will not achieve a global footprint in one generation for its networks. However, it can become more international, building on its footholds in Korea, Japan’s KDDI and the USA. It also has deployments or contracts for 4G or 5G in Canada (Telus), New Zealand (Spark), India (Reliance Jio) and some western European markets. In the USA, it is one of three suppliers to Verizon and AT&T, and also supplies regional player US Cellular. It was a WiMAX, LTE and 5G supplier to Sprint, but it is unclear how much of the Sprint network will be retained now it is part of T-Mobile USA. Shah would only say that Samsung is in active talks with TMO.

The adoption of O-RAN should help to expand its reach, though in last week’s launch, the open platform did not take center stage in the same way as it did at Nokia, nor was Samsung being as aggressive about supporting the Linux Foundation-hosted specifications.

“We’ve already done a lot of interoperability work in this area and so you’ll see open RAN components across many of the radios and baseband units in our portfolio as we move forward,” Shah said. “We’re a challenger in the market and so for us there’s a real upside opportunity we think, to competing on a more level playing field.”

The next steps in Samsung’s 5G roadmap, all promised by the end of this year, are support for dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), and the release of a 5G core and of network slicing.