NEC, with big open RAN ambitions, helps NTT Docomo trial 5G SA

Two Japanese companies — NTT Docomo and NEC — collaborated to test 5G standalone (SA) with open radio access network (RAN) interfaces. The companies upgraded a 5G non-standalone baseband unit on Docomo’s commercial network to 5G SA, via a software upgrade.

The 5G SA disaggregated CU/DU baseband conforms to open RAN interface specifications. And the test interoperated the 5G baseband with radio units from different vendors.

Patrick Lopez, NEC's global VP of product management for 5G, said the DU and CU that can interface with a third party’s radio is what makes the technology open RAN. “You can mix and match vendors in that deployment,” said Lopez.

Moving forward, Docomo and NEC will continue to verify the performance of 5G CU/DU and introduce new SA units to Docomo's commercial network. They say that as the lineup of interoperable 5G baseband devices expands through multi-vendor connectivity, coverage areas can be more flexibly designed.

NEC has big open RAN ambitions

Lopez indicated that NEC sees itself as perfectly positioned to become a big player in the nascent open RAN ecosystem.

Asked if NEC wanted to compete against entrenched vendors such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, he said those vendors have the experience and scale to deploy “monolithic” products in large networks. But he said, “We think the traditional vendors have to protect their legacy investments. Maybe open RAN took them a little bit by surprise, and it’s not easy to take a traditional RAN product that has been designed as an iteration of other products and re-design from scratch.”

Then there are a bunch of emerging vendors in the open RAN space that are innovative, but they don’t have the scale or capacity to deploy large networks.

“NEC would like to think of ourselves as the best of both worlds,” said Lopez. “We’re a large telecom equipment manufacturer at scale. At the same time, we’re radically open, which allows for much more rapid pace of innovation. If you look at open RAN, we are still the only vendor in the world with a massive MIMO product deployed commercially at scale that is open RAN in an urban environment.”

In terms of the massive MIMO radio, he was referring to NEC’s work with Rakuten

RELATED: Rakuten is building a 3.7 GHz massive MIMO 5G radio with NEC

NEC also thinks it has an advantage in that the company is a large conglomerate with businesses in a number of verticals. Many enterprises in these verticals are starting to demand 5G connectivity and private 5G networks, and NEC already has established business relationships in these verticals.

"From our observation, 5G will be about enabling new experiences in a variety of settings," said Lopez. "4G has perhaps been more about consumer and video streaming, we think 5G is going to be more about verticals and enterprises."