AT&T’s open RAN deployment is already under way

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A lot of the hardware that AT&T deploys this year include features that support open RAN. (Getty Images)

A lot has changed since the Open RAN Alliance launched in 2018 – there are a lot more members, for one thing.

The movement also gained a surprising amount of attention from policymakers and politicians. The FCC launched a big formal inquiry around the topic, and it’s even caught the attention of the Biden administration.

What hasn’t changed is the original mission, which has to do with being open, intelligent and interoperable. The O-RAN Alliance was founded in early 2018 by AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange by combining the C-RAN Alliance and the xRAN Forum.

“Those core principals continue to be with us, and those are the ones that are powering the path we’re on,” said Raj Savoor, vice president of Network Analytics and Automation at AT&T, during the online Fierce Open RAN Summit last week.

A driving factor is to open up the supply chain to more vendors, including U.S.-based companies, rather than having operators succumb to the vendor lock-in that dominant infrastructure players like Ericsson and Nokia facilitated.

One of the hot topics revolves around the timing. When does AT&T introduce these open elements into its network for commercial purposes?

From a hardware perspective, “a lot of what we are deploying this year actually has features of open RAN built into it,” he said. “So from a hardware deployment capability, we are already down that path.”

As for unlocking those components through software, a lot of activity is occurring this year in terms of RAN Intelligent Controllers (RICs) and service management orchestrator (SMO) elements that need to be in place to enable everything.

“I expect that in the next year, a year from now, we will start introducing, beginning with in-building, the first O-RAN deployments,” unlocking both deployed hardware and a lot of the intelligent software. “The trials we are doing this year are kind of giving us confidence that we will move down that path,” Savoor said.

His comments dovetail with what AT&T EVP and CTO Andre Fuetsch said during a podcast with industry analyst Roger Entner in June. AT&T is taking a phased approached and starting first with indoor, in-building deployments for open RAN because that typically has the least amount of complexity, according to Fuetsch.

The next phase will be to take it to the macro stage, but even there, sub-phases will be part of the plan and rural macro deployments are likely to be among the first, in part because, there again, it's easier and there are fewer band configurations to deal with.

AT&T also told the FCC earlier this year that it expects to incorporate O-RAN compliant equipment into its network within the next year. According to AT&T, the challenge for an operator shifting to any open network architecture, including but not limited to O-RAN, will be maintaining network reliability, integrity and performance for customers during the transition. 

Asked about the differences for greenfield versus incumbent operators, Savoor said the specifications from organizations like the O-RAN Alliance benefit both greenfield and legacy operators the same.

Still, the path is different for legacy operators. Besides the physical aspects of a legacy RAN infrastructure, they also have to take into consideration their support, network management and planning systems. They all have to adapt to the new open RAN model, and “that does take time,” he said. “It will be a different path, but I think the outcomes will be very similar.”

Of course, cost savings are supposed to be one of the big benefits for operators. Rather than being forced to use proprietary gear, open RAN opens it up to a mix-and-match scenario where operators can pick and choose the components they want from a variety of suppliers.

In addition, a lot of the benefits from an operating efficiency perspective come from capacity and coverage improvements, load balancing, traffic steering and areas like that. On the services side – besides enriching security and analytics capabilities – it can help in areas like industrial IoT management and better indoor location positioning data for industrial safety.

He noted that AT&T was a founding member of the O-RAN Alliance, and it’s very active in many initiatives on the path to commercialization. That requires a lot of collaboration, and from a North American perspective, AT&T has been active with other operators in plugfests focused on various use cases and interoperability.

From the standpoint of input and contributions from multiple players, AT&T is of the mindset that a more vibrant community is ideal, according to Savoor.

RELATED: AT&T, Dish hail open RAN, T-Mobile not so much

Circling back to the beginning of the open RAN movement, are operators still in the driver’s seat? It’s a question Fierce has posed to both vendors and operators in recent weeks. Given the amount of interest from lawmakers and the number of vendors seeking a piece of the action, it’s not unheard of for the mission to morph into something beyond what they originally intended.

Savoor said the intent is still intact from an operator perspective. With more than 300 members, the ecosystem relies heavily on the vendor and supply community, but it's not limited to suppliers and operators; academic and other communities are included as well.

“From the original principle perspective, that has not changed,” he said. “The mission is very much as the original founding operators defined it.”