Inland Cellular tests out open RAN for rural areas

During a keynote panel session at the CCA Mobile Carriers show in Tampa, Inland Cellular EVP Chip Damato discussed the carrier’s foray into open RAN, acknowledging the regional carrier is taking a chance by going with newer technology but seeing success in early trials.

“Sometimes we’ve got to take chances to get where we need to go,” according to Damato, who noted as a smaller carrier it doesn’t have the opportunity for large staffs to do lab tests over a number of years. Based in Lewiston, Idaho, Inland is dealing with tough terrain and was looking for a way to deploy in a more economical way, both for capex and opex savings.

Inland is building out its network and looking to support use cases for agriculture, forestry and mining.

“At this point in time, open RAN allowed us to build out quicker” because of those savings, he said. The company is still in the trial period, but up until now “we haven’t run into too many issues and it’s been successful so far,” Damato continued.

Inland is using Parallel Wireless as its vendor.

Asked if open RAN is cheaper, he said currently it’s shown to be less expensive.

“It’s new, so at this point in time, yes we’ve had the ability to move quicker in a capital sense” and as for operating expenses the “maintenance side has been a little bit of an advantage as well,” Damato said. Still, efforts on open RAN are only about one to two years in and he emphasized the carrier is making somewhat of a bet.

“But as regional carriers, it’s part of what we’ve got to do to be able to survive in today’s day and age,” he added.

Damato also noted that regional carriers don’t typically have the negotiating power that Tier 1 operators do when dealing with a single supplier and trying to offer different services.

O-RAN leads in the direction of more options and “gives us a little bit of leverage and bargaining power that regional carriers haven’t had before,” he said.

Inland represents one of the few taking on an open RAN deployment in early stages. Dish Network is the largest example of open RAN implementation in the U.S. as it builds out a standalone 5G network. Another regional carrier, Montana-based Triangle Communications has selected open RAN vendor Mavenir for it’s rip and replace upgrade as it removes insecure Huawei and ZTE network equipment.

Cellcom, a Wisconsin-based carrier, hasn’t been as keen on open RAN. Speaking during a separate session at the CCA event on Wednesday, Cellcom CTO Rick Brooks said they’re thinking about open RAN, but questioned if it’s mature enough, and noted it’s more of a challenge in brownfield environments than greenfield.

Vendors weigh in

Also weighing in alongside Damato during Tuesday’s panel session were vendor representatives including Mavenir and traditional heavyweights Nokia and Ericsson.

John Hoadley, VP Technical Solutions & Architecture at Mavenir, emphasized that the origin and desire for open RAN came from service providers, who wanted a more economical option in the way RAN is delivered. He cited a few different ways to get to that point, such as open interfaces that create more competition and allows them to pick and choose different suppliers for different use cases, be it radios or different configurations.

The other aspect is virtualization. “It’s really trying to get everything on a server and everything virtualized that can be,” Hoadley said. “And so that gets you on a different cost curve.”

The final aspect is intelligence, he added, saying open interfaces enables better automation, the ability to work with suppliers and management aspects.

“All of those things apply, we see, to rural markets as well,” Hoadley said.

Nokia’s Ed Alfanso pointed to the need for a toolkit, where rural carriers have a range of solutions they may employ in order to be successful (a theme that came up often during this week’s show).

When it comes to open RAN, Alfanso said that ultimately the question carriers need to ask comes back to disaggregation of the RAN and having to reaggregate on the backside. It depends if they want one vendor to deal with “to make sure that all things performance, KPIs and network resilience resides with one partner, or do you effectively want to become a systems integrator” and manage a very broad program that involves reassembling the baseband unit and radio “and try to pull back together” those pieces with performance levels.

Alfanso said open RAN is one of many solutions that he thinks CSPs “will certainly be evaluating and pulling the trigger on, but I think there’s a lot to consider when you go down that path.”

Ericsson is having very similar conversations, according to Eric Boudriau, SVP & GM of Customer Unit for Regional Carriers at Ericsson.

“I think it’s very clear depending on the network assets” and where one’s starting, as well as the community and services being offered.  

From an Ericsson’s view, he said, they see where this is going “and we think there is a lot of value long-term” for open RAN, particularly around required levels of automation, which today is not there.

Boudriau also pointed to Dish’s O-RAN implementation, where chairman Charlie Ergen has said it’s had to take on more of a lead systems integrator role that it had expected.

“This is why the toolbox is important…it’s a journey, it will take time for automation to bring all the benefit,” he continued.

In that regard, during the session Damato pointed out that Inland is using any kind of technology that will get its needs met. In addition to open RAN, the carrier is also using millimeter wave tech and LoRA for applications in agriculture and mining.

The most difficult thing is getting connectivity out to farms, mines and then back to the right place. In terms of federal funds going to fixed deployments (another common theme at CCA this week), he emphasized the need to use whatever technology necessary, as his service area terrain is much different than say a provider in Kansas, for example.

“Fixed is great but most of those people are out in field 80% of the time,” he noted, with spectrum and backhaul posing challenges for regional carriers.

“So we’re using any kind of technology we can turn over, we’re flipping rocks every day, to find something else and give us that ability to connect them and serve them,” Damato said.