NTT Docomo shares open, vRAN lab with global carriers

Japanese operators are officially the leaders in open radio access network (RAN) and virtual RAN (vRAN) technologies. The wireless industry is already well-aware that Rakuten Mobile is leading the charge in real-world open RAN and vRAN, given that it built its greenfield wireless network using the technologies. And Rakuten also created the new company Symphony to resell its expertise. Now, NTT Docomo is also grabbing the open RAN and vRAN reins.

Open RAN refers to interoperable radio equipment, software and interfaces so that technologies from multiple vendors can be mixed and matched. vRAN refers to the trend of using software, running on generic hardware, to replace integrated proprietary systems.

NTT Docomo has established a facility to test and verify open RAN and vRAN systems. And it’s making the facility available for other mobile operators to remotely access the lab to test their own systems.

The shared lab is located at Docomo’s R&D center in Yokosuka, Japan. 

The lab is one of the initiatives of NTT Docomo’s 5G Open RAN Ecosystem (OREC) project, which it began in 2021. 

For OREC, NTT Docomo is working with 13 global vendors to develop open RAN software and hardware that can be used by operators around the world. Those vendors are:

  1. AMD
  2. Wind River
  3. Vmware
  4. Red Hat
  5. Qualcomm
  6. Nvidia
  7. Dell Technologies
  8. Fujitsu
  9. Intel
  10. HPE
  11. Mavenir
  12. NEC
  13. NTT Data

The shared open lab has already deployed virtualized base stations made with equipment from multiple OREC partners. The verification environment is now open to remote access by global operators, eliminating their need to prepare in-house verification labs. Other operators can use the lab to verify vRAN base station functions and performance prior to commercial deployment.

Mobile Experts principal analyst Joe Madden said, “This type of collaboration lab is important to the industry, as vRAN needs to settle into some de facto standards. Solutions that compete with Intel's FlexRAN will need a place for open interoperability testing. Many operators would like to implement vRAN but need to build confidence in the ease of implementation before they commit. Kudos to Docomo for providing a test bed.”

For its own network, NTT Docomo launched a commercial 5G service using open RAN in March 2020. The company's 5G open RAN currently includes more than 10,000 base stations and more than 10 million subscribers.

Commercializing open RAN and vRAN

This year, NTT Docomo plans to commercialize its vRAN technology for international mobile operators, including by leveraging the know-how and strengths of its OREC partners.

This follows Rakuten Mobile’s lead by taking its learnings in open RAN and vRAN and offering it for sale to other operators. Rakuten Mobile has recently created a new company — Rakuten Symphony — to become a new telecom vendor, competing against the heavyweights of Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.

Rakuten Symphony Chief Marketing Officer Geoff Hollingworth was quick to comment today on NTT Docomo’s plans.

In a LinkedIn post Hollingworth said he was happy to hear the news. “The more momentum there is around adopting the new needed build practices in telecom the better. It does not surprise me this is happening in Japan. I feel there is a real intent and desire in the region to be technology leaders in the next era of telecom and cloud infrastructure.”

Hollingworth said both NTT Docomo and Rakuten are dealing with the cost of systems integration, which he called “the silent killer in telecom.”

He said the traditional solution is to optimize integration costs into one supplier and build monolithic components. This results in less integration costs but then sticks the operator with limited supplier choice and control. 

“NTT is approaching solving the problem by industrializing the systems integration into validated blueprints where constellations can be ‘certified,’” he said.