Verizon joins ORAN Alliance, but first US 5G networks are conventional

In 2018, the ideas of open RAN have really gained prominence. A year ago they seemed abstruse and confined to small cells. Now the activities of the Open RAN (ORAN) Alliance and Facebook-initiated Telecom Infa Project (TIP) have recruited major vendors and operators to the cause of an open network based on commoditized hardware; open interfaces between the elements of a disaggregated RAN; and a heavy dose of virtualization. If these two initiatives succeed in converging next year, the proprietary RAN market really could start to change.

Just before the year ends, the ORAN Alliance – formed from the merger of the AT&T-founded xRAN Forum and the China-oriented C-RAN Alliance – finally signed up Verizon. Although the US carrier had contributed to the xRAN fronthaul specification, which was released in April and will be part of the ORAN specs, it had hesitated about joining the merged group. But now, it has stepped up as a new board member, along with Reliance Jio of India and TIM of Italy.

“It’s encouraging to see the ORAN Alliance off to such a strong start and gaining momentum as we welcome three new board members,” said Andre Fuetsch, chair of the Alliance and CTO of AT&T. “It’s important that the wireless industry continues to come together to drive forward ORAN’s goals for open networking, software, and virtualization in global wireless networks especially as 5G is closer than ever.”

Ed Chan, SVP and chief technology architect at Verizon, said in a statement: “We are excited to continue our drive towards an open radio network specification for the wireless industry. “We will leverage the foundational success of xRAN to accelerate the work in ORAN. Verizon looks forward to contributing to the success of ORAN in realizing network components’ interoperability at a global scale to create the next generation of flexible wireless networks for our customers.”

The Alliance also announced a new collaboration with The Linux Foundation, which hosts it, to establish an open source community dedicated to RAN software. And it released its first white paper, ‘ORAN: Towards an Open and Smart RAN’.

Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T may be leading lights in these open network initiatives, but it will be many years before they let such technologies loose in their main mobile networks. The big MNOs are all hurtling towards 5G, and Verizon and AT&T already have commercial services. Verizon’s are fixed-only and use a proprietary pre-standard flavour (though it has a near term roadmap to switch to full 3GPP Non-Standalone equipment).

But AT&T, which also started with fixed wireless, has a less convincing case for that application than its arch-rival and so has always had the more aggressive agenda for moving to mobile services. It now claims to have achieved that, despite a complete lack of handsets for 5G NR. However, like many early 4G deployers, AT&T will rely initially on mobile hostpots, which can act as backhaul for WiFi devices.

It is only offering the mobile service to selected businesses and consumers and points out that “coverage and device availability are limited”. But it is starting to provide indicators about pricing, saying that, after this three-month period of (in effect) commercial trial, it will offer any customers in range of 5G a Nighthawk device for $499 upfront, with 15GB of data for $70 a month and no annual commitment.

Far from charging a 5G premium, this is somewhat less, on a per-GB basis, than AT&T’s LTE personal hotspot plan, at $50 for 10GB. However, the 5G offering provides less data, for more money, than AT&T offers on its Cricket prepaid service, which gives 22GB of data for $50 a month (though only at 3Mbps speeds).

AT&T stressed that its 5G pricing could change once smartphones and other devices are available. “5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing,” the operator said.

AT&T is also upping the ante on labelling – having attracted criticism for calling enhanced LTE sites ‘5G’, it will now call its 5G services in millimeter wave spectrum ‘5G+’.

On the equipment side, AT&T is relying on Ericsson RAN, Qualcomm chips and Netgear devices for all its initial 12 cities, although Nokia and Samsung are also on its 5G supplier roster. The focus on a few partners for the first phase was designed to make life simpler, AT&T’s CTO, Andre Fuetsch, told ZDnet. “When we sat down a year ago and said that we were going to get this launch by the end of 2018, we had to focus on one particular RAN vendor to make this happen, one particular device vendor, and one chip vendor,” he said “Complicating it more, given the aggressiveness of the timeline, was too much. It was already complex enough.”

In the official launch announcement, Fuetsch said: “This is the first taste of the mobile 5G era. Being first, you can expect us to evolve very quickly. It’s early on the 5G journey and we’re ready to learn fast and continually iterate in the months ahead.”

AT&T’s mobile 5G network is now available in “parts” of Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Antonio and Waco, Texas. The carrier said that in the first half of next year, it will deploy mobile 5G in parts of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California.

As for Sprint, it has been talking up its progress towards 5G, even without the looming T-Mobile merger. That has taken several steps forward, and a combined 5G roll-out has been one of the chief justifications to antitrust regulators. However, right to the end, Sprint is stressing its credentials as an independent thinker on networks – even if, sadly, its advanced technological approach has rarely, in recent years, translated into strong financial performance.

CTO John Saw wrote in an end-of-year blog post that he was “celebrating a banner year for the Sprint network”, with a promise to launch mobile 5G during the first half of 2019. He said: “We’re ending this year with our biggest LTE data coverage footprint, LTE-Advanced nationwide – which is up to 2x faster than before on capable devices – and Gigabit Class LTE performance in more than 270 cities.”

Saw said Sprint has deployed its 2.5 GHz spectrum to about 70% of its cell sites, and it has more than 25,000 mini-macro base stations and strand-mounts deployed across the country.

Earlier in December, Sprint completed its first 5G data transmission on 2.5 GHz spectrum, in its labs, and will soon start field testing. It has said it will deploy mobile 5G services next year in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington DC – “building out from the city centers to create a contiguous 5G mobile experience, and adding more cities over time.”