AT&T’s Elbaz reiterates commitment to open architecture

When it was announced last month that AT&T EVP/Network CTO Andre Fuetsch was retiring after 27 years with the company, questions arose about AT&T’s intentions to remain on the same technology path.

According to his successor Igal Elbaz, the company is as committed as ever to the software-defined and open networking principles that were so much a part of Fuetsch’s legacy. The move to open Radio Access Network (RAN) and virtualized RAN (vRAN) can be tied to Fuetsch and his work at AT&T as well as in forums like the O-RAN Alliance.

Elbaz said it’s a big honor to step into the roles that Fuetsch is leaving. He considers him an industry icon, mentor and friend whose vision drove the industry in software defined networking (SDN), disaggregation and openness. “Simply put, we are committed to carry that vision forward,” Elbaz told Fierce.

Reinforcing that point, Elbaz said that when it comes to vRAN and open RAN, the main thing there is “we’ve been proving that we are committed to virtualization and openness, and we have the experience, not just to develop those concepts but actually realizing them in the network. We have the right experience,” as well as the ability to understand when to implement these things. And this work will continue, he said.

AT&T isn’t doing open RAN yet in the macro environment but it is already implementing open RAN in the small cell arena, Fuetsch said. They’ve done a lot of trials and proofs of concept with customers that want to take advantage of it, he said.   

A lot of the open RAN traction is happening in Asia, as well as Europe. So far, Dish Network has been the one leading the charge in the U.S., launching a new 5G network based on open RAN and cloud principles – but without the legacy hardware that the incumbent operators have to worry about.   

Asked about the pace at which the industry is moving to open RAN and whether it’s happening fast enough, Fuetsch said there’s a lot of activity. “Yes, it’s been slower than I’d like within the United States, but I’m really pleased to see what’s going on,” he said.

Fuetsch got interested in networking as an undergrad at UC Berkeley and when he went off to attend grad school at Stanford University in computer science, he took Nick McKeown’s first distributed networking class. McKeown is well-known as one of the pioneers of SDN.

Both Fuetsch and Chris Rice, who was previously SVP of AT&T Labs, led the charge on SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) at AT&T under the leadership of former AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan. That was part of the Domain 2.0 initiative. Fuetsch was called on to lead the SDN program in 2014.

That was when AT&T announced it was taking 75% of its network to a software-driven model by 2020.

It was ambitious and in hindsight, he admits, a little scary, in that they took this whole notion of converting over to software and made it a big public goal. “If you ever want to get serious about something, make your goals public and everyone gets laser-focused,” he said.

It was a team effort, he said. “I’m really proud of the team. They just did a phenomenal job. We not only met that goal, but exceeded it,” he said.

Vendor shake-up

When the O-RAN Alliance was established, it was designed to bring the same playbook as they did in the IP routing/switching space, with open disaggregated solutions. He said it wasn’t a novel or new idea, just borrowed from the cloud players and one they wanted to bring into the RAN, which is a very expensive part of the network and controlled by a few select vendors.

“By sort of breaking that stranglehold, if you will, that they’ve had in that space, we had to find a way to come up with an open architecture, open standard interfaces and approaches to bring in more players into this,” he said.

Elbaz will take over Fuetsch’s spot on the O-RAN Alliance – one that Fuetsch co-founded. “I’m really pleased Igal is taking that over,” Fuetsch said. Elbaz is already on the board of ATIS, which feeds into 3GPP. “He’s going to be a great leader and advocate for a lot of these new open initiatives,” Fuetsch said.

As for Fuetsch, his last day is September 1. “After 27 years, it’s been an amazing journey across the technology spectrum, lots of big changes over the decades,” he said. “We’re at a point now where it’s time for me to move on... But it’s been an amazing journey.”

First and foremost, Fuetsch is going to take some time off with his family to live in Europe for a while, where he can decompress, recalibrate and then work on his next big endeavor, which he’s not ready to talk about. “I’ll get back into the game, but I’ll keep that as a surprise,” he said.