Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

22 November 2019

Vodafone’s 5G RFI – positive for ORAN pact, less so for open supply chain

The large-scale RFQ (see previous item) was not Vodafone’s only big announcement at the TIP Summit. It also announced the results of a new request for information (RFI), this time for OpenRAN 5G New Radio (NR), the focus of a recently formed new working group.

There are two very significant aspects to this.

One, although many small vendors responded, the winner was Samsung – not a major RAN vendor, but a traditional MNO partner and a company of huge resources. This did not entirely chime with the focus on shaking up the supply chain, but looked more like an old-school operator attempt to build up a single alternative, but low-risk, supplier to keep the incumbents honest – rather as Vodafone did in the early 4G era when it first introduced Huawei to its approved supplier list.

Two was the insistence that suppliers should support both the ORAN Alliance specification – often presented as an alternative to TIP OpenRAN – and be TIP members. This was the latest in a series of signals that these two efforts should converge, and that operators are pushing them in that direction, though a clearer commitment to work together in a complementary way is badly needed to allay fears of fragmentation.

Samsung is the only large vendor to respond:

Vodafone sent the RFI to its incumbent suppliers in Europe and to various smaller vendors. Piling the pressure onto the big OEMs, Santiago Tenorio, head of networks and architecture, said: “Unfortunately, the incumbent suppliers did not respond.”

This reminded the audience of the large vendors’ understandable ambiguity about open RAN platforms, given that they threaten to end a long history of profitable lock-in.

Nokia has been the most willing of the majors to accept the inevitable and support open platforms, presumably with the aim of seizing market share from more slow-moving rivals and defending its customers from new entrants. Nokia has been very focused on the ORAN Alliance, which even Ericsson has joined.

One large company did respond to the RFI, and that was Samsung – not a major RAN equipment player of course, but with huge resources to scale up its business by leveraging open platforms while promising the reassurance of a large OEM. The other companies which responded, providing “fantastic work in record time”, according to Tenorio, were Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Altran, Phluido, Altiostar and Radisys.

Vodafone selected Samsung as the winner. “There is one company that is particularly bright, and that is Samsung,” said Tenorio. “Their level of compliance to our requirements is spectacular; it’s beyond 80%. That tells us that if we want to put 5G into open RAN and take it to suburban and urban areas, we are probably more ready than we thought.”

All of which highlights the risk to the small vendors – their resources and ability to move quickly to fully carrier-grade 5G, by contrast with 3G/4G where many had existing products, especially in the small cell arena, which could be repurposed for open specifications.

TIP and ORAN specs are growing closer:

This is reminiscent of the early days of the small cell market, when there was considerable excitement about a new architecture with a new supply chain – the hoped-for progress failed to materialize at any scale, partly because it took far longer for the start-ups to migrate their products to 4G than had been expected, opening the space up to major providers like Huawei.

The conditions of the RFI are interesting as they will be true of any commercial procurements for open 5G from Vodafone. They were:

  • the software must run on x86 servers
  • the vendors must be willing and able to open their interfaces and support multivendor environments
  • they must support the ORAN specification
  • they must be a member of TIP.

This indicates how ORAN and TIP OpenRAN specifications are coming together in a complementary way in operators’ planning, even if the groups remain, for now, quite separate. Operators which have been prominent in ORAN development and trials, like Rakuten, are starting to join TIP too (Rakuten signed up at the show and said it would participate in the OpenRAN and 5G NR OpenRAN groups).

OpenRAN is focused “on developing a vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology based on open interfaces and community-developed standards”, with decoupled hardware and software. But instead of designing that virtualized, decomposed architecture from scratch, OpenRAN is drawing up agreed requirements, which could then be met, in theory, by a range of approaches. And the core of its work is on platforms that can harness commoditized hardware to the same performance levels as proprietary boxes, and on driving availability of that hardware at scale.

This can then support actual specifications from other groups. ORAN Alliance is developing specs that will be alternatives to existing, semi-proprietary interfaces like CPRI fronthaul and X2 RAN interface.

Deutsche Telekom’s Axel Clauberg, who is also chair of TIP and a leading light in several other open groups, called last year for greater collaboration between different initiatives. He showed how OpenRAN and ORAN could complement one another, highlighting that Telefónica and Vodafone, as well as being leaders of the TIP OpenRAN project, also plan to base their work on the ORAN specs.

He explained the difference between the groups, saying that TIP “has not done any specs from the ground up. They have not built architecture but are looking at how the architecture specified by the ORAN Alliance could be built and deployed in a commercial way. In this area, TIP would do solutions integration and prove it is possible to build such an open RAN in real life.”

“We’re agnostic when it comes to the technologies that we incorporate in our project groups so when it comes to looking for a specification to create a product in the OpenRAN space we’ll look around to see if there’s something pre-existing,” said Attilio Zani, executive director of TIP. “We are not at all defensive with anyone else. We’re not looking to own a space in any way so we’re open to working with 3GPP, ETSI, and other organizations to take a specification, work it through a set of requirements, and define a solution.”

TIP is also working closely with Open Networking Foundation:

A more formal cooperation between TIP OpenRAN and the ORAN Alliance is, therefore, important to confidence and unity in the emerging open platform. But there are other open initiatives which could either complement or confuse the TIP effort, depending how they are approached. One is the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which announced an extended collaboration with TIP in Amsterdam.

“The natural synergies between ONF and TIP are numerous,” said ONF’s VP of marketing and ecosystem, Timon Sloane. He told FierceTelecom: “We’re both operator-driven organizations focused on transformation across the networking industry. But we are different in that ONF focuses on open software, whereas TIP’s focus is on open hardware. The beauty is that hardware needs software and software needs hardware, so deepening the collaboration between our organizations makes a lot of sense.”

The ONF – whose initiatives include CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter) and ODTN (Open Disaggregated Transport Network) – is creating open source software that can run on the TIP hardware as one of the stack options. While some vendors will build their own stacks for the TIP boxes, others may choose to reduce their cost and time to market by adopting an open option.

Earlier this year, ONF announced a collaboration between ODTN and TIP’s Open Optical and Packet Transport (OOPT) group, which also houses the DCSG (Distributed Cell Site Gateway – see separate item). That work has led to a field trial which is about to kick off in South America.

For fixed wireless broadband, an important application for rural and underserved areas – where many of TIP’s transport and fixed wireless activities are focused –  the ONF is working to enable its SEBA (SDN-Enabled Broadband Access) platform to support TIP millimeter wave mesh technology. This would be another option to join SEBA’s first target access network of passive optical network (PON) fiber and the ONF aims to support multiple access technologies simultaneously.

Andreas Gladisch, VP of emerging technologies and technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom, and co-chair of the TIP mmWave Networks project group, said in a statement: “We welcome this initiative between TIP and ONF to explore hybrid access networks using PON, mmWave and other wired and wireless technologies under an SDN architecture.”

ONF and TIP set out new program of cooperations:

The two bodies also have ongoing cooperations in the mobile domain where they are marrying ONF software with TIP hardware platforms. Potential joint projects outlined in Amsterdam include:

  • Integrating TIP’s OpenRAN 5G NR hardware with an enhanced version of ONF’s OMEC (Open Evolved Mobile Core) to create a Non-Standalone end-to-end solution
  • Integration with ONF’s ORAN-compliant RIC controller for 5G RANs, which runs its ONOS (Open Network Operating System) and allows for programmatic, policy-driven control of the RAN
  • Integration with ONF’s planned RAN-Distributed Unit and RAN-Central Unit software stacks based on the ORAN architecture
  • Integration with ONF’s COMAC (Converged Multi-Access and Core) platform to introduce 5G to converged wired and wireless systems in a standard way

In February, the ONF announced COMAC as its fifth reference design, and a 5G converged extension of OMEC. The stack will manage high speed subscriber traffic regardless of a user’s access link.

COMAC will be configurable for mobile 4G and 5G as well as PON, WiFi, DOCSIS cable and fixed wireless; and will support unified subscriber management, across 4G’s Mobility Management Entity (MME), the mobile Home Subscriber Server (HSS), and broadband’s BNG-Authentication.

By disaggregating all the elements and running them as microservices, the ONF says operators will be able to place those elements dynamically where they are most needed, on access, edge, core or public clouds.

“5G technology is a profound technology shift taking place in parallel with a massive upgrade in broadband networks,” said Oguz Sunay, chief architect for mobile at the ONF.

“COMAC is on a path to become a pivotal piece of the edge network for operators, playing a very important role in the realization of next generation infrastructure where enhanced mobile connectivity must be paired with broadband to support new use cases and the development of next generation services.”

T-Mobile and Sprint plan to take OMEC into field trials this year. Durga Satapathy, director of technology innovation and architecture at Sprint and co-chair of TIP’s OpenRAN 5G NR Project Group, said in a statement: “Sprint is delighted to see TIP and ONF collaborating to accelerate open and disaggregated 5G network solutions.”