Ericsson bolsters its 5G Cloud RAN with mid-band, massive MIMO

Ericsson hit what one executive touted as a major milestone with its cloud RAN offering, adding support for mid-band spectrum and massive MIMO in a move that comes as operators in the U.S. gear up for C-Band deployments later this year.

The company is also introducing new Cloud Link software, which will enable technologies like spectrum sharing and carrier aggregation to be used across disaggregated and legacy network infrastructure.

Per Narvinger, Ericsson’s head of Product Area Networks, told Fierce it teamed with Intel on the move to ensure its cloud RAN software can efficiently run on general purpose hardware, noting mid-band and massive MIMO both require significantly more compute power than low-band spectrum.

“That’s been a big debate in the industry, can you handle that with cloud RAN or do you have to have purpose-built hardware,” he said. “We are now saying that this will work on any server, any cloud, any Ericsson radio, any site in any field, if you have a greenfield or if it’s bluefield deployment.” A bluefield deployment is one which uses the existing infrastructure of brownfield sites but does not involve a completely new installation, according to Ericsson.

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The company rolled out its first cloud RAN offering last year, splitting apart its hardware and software into a disaggregated system and starting with support for low-band spectrum. Explaining why the addition of mid-band represents such a leap, Narvinger explained the larger spectrum channels available in these bands mean there is significantly more data to process. Massive MIMO exponentially adds to the compute burden due to the larger number of antennas on each radio.

“So we are not just supporting what you would say is a classic radio deployment, but actually then massive MIMO where you have a lot more transmit branches. I mean 64 branches or 32 or whatever our customers prefer to deploy,” he said. “All those antenna branches they generate a lot of data, and that is then the major milestone that we achieved here, that we can handle all that data in a general purpose server.”

Narvinger said disaggregating its hardware and software took a lot of collaboration with operator partners, noting the vendor needed to understand what cloud platforms its customers wanted to use and how they wanted to operate their networks. He added Ericsson worked very closely with Intel to enable its software on the latter's X86 servers and ensure there’s a roadmap in place to support the software going forward.

“If you look at their CPUs, it’s their Sapphire Rapids generation and Granite Rapids and that will then enable capacity growth when they have accelerated the technology that can handle all the data required on a mid-band deployment.” Sapphire Rapids CPUs are set to go into production in 2022, with Granite Rapids following in 2023.

Narvinger said the mid-band and massive MIMO capabilities will be available globally in the second half of 2022. The goal is to eventually follow with mmWave, but this will take time, he added.

The announcement comes as U.S. operators prepare to begin deploying key mid-band spectrum known as C-band later this year. Verizon, which named Ericsson as one of its C-band vendors, has said it is aiming to cover 175 million people with C-band by end-2023, with AT&T targeting 200 million in the timeframe. AT&T has not named Ericsson as a C-band vendor but has sought to conduct trials in the band with the company.