Ericsson traditionally has provided a tightly integrated system of hardware and software, so it’s taking a bit of a leap by introducing a cloud Radio Access Network (RAN) portfolio that enables more automation.
Cloud RAN refers to realizing RAN functions over a generic compute platform instead of purpose-built hardware. It’s a big step for Ericsson, acknowledged Per Narvinger, head of Product Area Networks at Ericsson. However, it’s being introduced in a staged approach.
The first stage will be available in the fourth quarter of 2021. That will include Ericsson’s new Cloud RAN application software – Cloud RAN distributed unit (DU) and Cloud RAN centralized unit (CU), enabling a scalable 5G network architecture. It also includes new Radio Gateways that will be compliant with the customer’s installed base of remote radios.
Ericsson said its Cloud RAN offering will open the door for service providers to use web-scale technology and benefit from cloud-native design from application to infrastructure. The solution supports both standalone (SA) 5G and non-standalone (NSA) 5G.
The company isn’t announcing contracts or specific operators, but it has a number of trials and engagements going on, Narvinger said. Of course, there’s been a lot of discussion about virtualization in the U.S. market, including by AT&T and Verizon. Wireless newcomer Dish Network is building its 5G network with virtualization at the outset.
The move is significant in that it shows Ericsson recognizes that cloud RAN is an inevitable part of the future of the RAN, according to Ed Gubbins, principal analyst at GlobalData.
It was likely to happen at some point, but the questions about when and how to make this kind of move probably weren’t easy for Ericsson, in part because cloud RAN represents a potentially disruptive threat that enables a new breed of competitors like Altiostar and Mavenir to make inroads against traditional vendors like Ericsson, he said. That threat is even greater thanks to the fast-developing ecosystem of open RAN radio units that cloud RAN vendors can leverage, he noted.
The move actually brings Ericsson in line with what its closest rivals, Samsung and Nokia, are doing, according to Patrick Filkins, senior research analyst at IDC. Nokia and Samsung are already moving past cloud RAN to Open RAN-compliant specs, which Ericsson has yet to announce. “I suspect they will follow suit, but it may be a while before they do so,” Filkins said, noting that the communications service provider (CSP) community will want it eventually from Ericsson.
ZTE has been more aggressive about enabling cloud RAN products than Huawei, which still champions a single RAN approach, but Huawei's focus on integrating site equipment and reducing site operational expenses has proven to be a viable strategy. Huawei probably will push cloud RAN more in the next year, especially as Ericsson is now on board with it, he said.
One of the key takeaways is Ericsson pushing a step-wise strategy for cloud RAN, which is more realistic in the context of how operators will adopt it, Filkins added.
Ericsson is supporting low-band 5G first, and will eventually help CSPs tackle mid- and high-band cloud RAN deployments over time. “Some in the industry seem to be under the impression that cloud RAN makes sense for the whole network. There are regions where distributed RAN will remain the de facto for years,” he said. “As such, CSPs need to explore deeply where cloud RAN can make a viable impact from both a service agility and TCO perspective. With 5G just getting out the door, the 5G service evolution question has not been answered yet. Investing in infrastructure now, only to see it underutilized, could be a troubling aspect if CSPs rush to deploy cloud RAN at scale.”