Open RAN moves beyond hype into trial phase and reality

Xilinx expects operators and others in the open RAN ecosystem to trial “thousands of radios” in 2021. (Getty Images)

Open radio access networking (open RAN) has gained global attention, even capturing the eye of U.S. politicians who see it as a way to avoid Huawei and ZTE equipment in American networks.

But now that open RAN has moved beyond the hype cycle, many stakeholders are working on the nitty gritty of open RAN technology.

FierceWireless is hosting four days of events March 22-25, on the topic of 5G. And the free virtual event will begin with a session discussing open RAN.

Vodafone’s head of group network architecture Santiago Tenorio is one of the world’s leaders on the topic of open RAN, and he’ll be kicking off the FierceWireless event with a video interview. Tenorio not only leads Vodafone’s work on open RAN, but he’s also chairman of the board at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP).

He’ll talk about TIP’s Evenstar radio project, which is designing and manufacturing general-purpose radios for 4G and 5G networks aligned with 3GPP and O-RAN Alliance specifications. 

RELATED: Vodafone names top radio companies in its open RAN RFI

Tenorio will also address the claim that open RAN technology has become pretty complicated because of all the different radios needed for all the different spectrum bands around the world.

Gilles Garcia, senior director for the wired and wireless group at the semiconductor company Xilinx, will participate on one of the open RAN panels at 5G Blitz week. Garcia said, “It’s not open RAN which is driving the number of radios. The 3GPP was already the driver of that.”

Garcia expects 2021 to be a year of open RAN trials. He cited trials that have already been done by Rakuten, Dish Network and Telefonica. But he expects operators and others in the open RAN ecosystem to trial “thousands of radios” in 2021, and he predicts we’ll see the “first massive deployments of open RAN” in 2022.

Xilinx’s main heritage is in field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and other programmable devices for both wired and wireless networks. “The interest we have in O-RAN is specifying interfaces between radios and base stations,” said Garcia. “As soon as you’re talking about open interfaces, you need interoperability between those radios and base stations that could be from different vendors.”

Using equipment from different vendors is a big part of what open RAN is all about. An operator could pick different vendors for its radios, for its centralized units (CUs) and distributed units (DUs), and even for the software running on the hardware. “To make all this work, O-RAN is defining specs between those different blocks,” said Garcia. “Our devices can be programmed in such a way to change on the fly to fit a new radio vendor.”

Xilinx is also working with several of the new open RAN radio vendors, which have chosen Xilinx silicon for their radios. Those vendors include Baicells, Fujitsu and KMW. And Xilinx is also working with TIP on the Evenstar open RAN radio project.

CommScope and open RAN

There are other considerations in open RAN besides the radios.

Marty Zimmerman, a CommScope engineering fellow with its Mobility Solutions group, said CommScope is involved with open RAN from the aspect of antennas.

“It’s our goal to support the ecosystem,” said Zimmerman. “We would provide the antennas that would include both functionality for standalone massive MIMO, but also for multi-band units that could support existing bands that could be LTE or 5G.”

“Everybody has their own expertise,” he added. “The radio guys don’t necessarily know how to design antennas. Somebody has to work with the Mavenirs and Xilinxes to create products for Rakuten or Dish.”

On massive MIMO, CommScope has been working on the antenna filter unit. Zimmerman said, “If you think about a massive MIMO, it’s a radio plus an array of antenna elements.”

He said with massive MIMO there are a lot of connections between the antennas and the radio. “What we bring to the table is the expertise to create the radiating aperture,” said Zimmerman. “That’s where we feel like we have the expertise.”

Why do open RAN?

Xilinx’s Garcia said open RAN is too big of a telecom evolution to miss. He said analysts predict the technology will command anywhere from 10% to 50% of the RAN market by 2026.

It’s not that Xilinx doesn’t value its customers Nokia and Ericsson. “The traditional vendors will still have a large market share,” he said. “We are still committed to those big vendors.” But he said even Nokia and Ericsson are involved with open RAN.

Zimmerman said, “We are committed to the ecosystem; spending money developing components. In the long run, we see that to our benefit. Otherwise, the radio OEMs will dominate with their solutions. Without Huawei and ZTE, we essentially have an oligarchy.”