Nokia’s mobile network head ready to face open RAN competition

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One challenge Nokia's Tommi Uitto cited is "reaggregation of the base station." (Getty Images)

Nokia’s head of mobile networks Tommi Uitto says open RAN still has challenges to overcome and believes the vendor can face competition from newer suppliers.   

As Nokia works to execute a turnaround, it doesn’t want to close any doors by ignoring O-RAN and last week Uitto, president of Mobile Networks, cited open RAN as a highly strategic topic for the Finnish telecom equipment vendor to win share in the future.

“We can win business either in baseband or radio [RU], or both, in some of the networks where we’re not present today by being a leader in O-RAN,” Uitto said in an interview with FierceWireless. That means facing competition from new entrants on both fronts now that Nokia is in better shape in terms of its baseband platforms, SoCs and other features, he added.  

However, while some operators may need and want O-RAN compliant gear, he said that doesn’t mean they’ll always buy from different vendors.

“For them it’s the flexibility and the ability, for instance in some part of the network to be mixing and matching different suppliers, in other parts of the network use radio and baseband from the same supplier as long as it’s O-RAN compliant so they have flexibility for the future,” Uitto said.

RELATED: Nokia’s Uitto sees strategic play in O-RAN embrace

He also suggested that if an O-RAN solution isn’t as good of a product, operators likely won’t go for it, especially if it means dings to their most valuable asset – spectrum.

“In terms of spectral efficiency, operators are not very willing to make compromises,” Uitto said, speaking to challenges newer players face. “There could be some areas of the network where it’s not such a big deal and then a lesser product would do.”

Operators always want to get the most out of their spectrum, but in general spectrum efficiency is particularly key in dense urban areas where a lot of data consumption happens versus more rural locations.

While Nokia is the first of the dominant RAN vendors to commit to O-RAN-compliant gear, there’s global interest in open RAN from operators.

RELATED: Telefonica’s O2 trials open RAN with NEC using Altiostar software

A February report from Dell’Oro Group forecast global open RAN revenues to account for more than 10% of the overall RAN market by 2025.

In Europe Telefónica and Vodafone have been at the forefront of open RAN trials. Early this year the two operators alongside Deutsche Telekom and Orange came together to commit to open RAN implementation and deployment, with an MoU to help ensure the technology could be as competitive as traditional RAN products.  

Japan’s Rakuten Mobile, meanwhile, is working to export learnings from its greenfield virtualized could-native network build for other operators through the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), which includes a vendor portfolio with players like Altiostar, Airspan and Mavenir, as well as Nokia. Nokia participated in Rakuten Mobile’s 4G network, opening up its remote radio head interfaces to Altiostar as part of the work.  

RELATED: Nokia looks to RAN programmability, openness with new platform

In the U.S. Dish network plans to build a cloud-native 5G network using an open architecture. Verizon has said it’s pursuing open RAN in parallel with virtualized RAN efforts, and AT&T is introducing open interfaces within its network.

O-RAN challenges

In terms of some of the biggest O-RAN challenges today, Uitto cited technical and operational examples, including the need for a more standardized blueprint.

To address them, Nokia is leveraging both internal efforts, work with operators, as well as other O-RAN suppliers and semi-conductor companies.

One relates to so-called profiles, which have RF configurations between different types of radio units and basebands. Here Nokia is working with carriers and other O-RAN vendors to focus on particular profiles.

RELATED: Open RAN moves beyond hype into trial phase and reality

“It’s a bit concerning that there are so many of these profiles, and then sub-profiles, so then the permutations start to become quite many to manage,” Uitto told Fierce, adding can be solved by certain technologies, preparing processors for different profiles, or using field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). However, to the last one, he acknowledged that Nokia understandably is “not particularly excited about using too many FPGAs for product cost reasons, and power consumption and ease of programming.”

Nokia ran into some trouble with FPGAs in 2019 for 5G infrastructure chips related to reasons above, and has since been switching to custom System-on-Chip (SoCs) for its ReefShark chipsets for 5G base station portfolio. At the end of 2020, 43% of shipments were based on the new ReefShark SoCs, with the aim of 70% this year and fully starting from 2022.

A second challenge for open RAN is what Uitto refers to “reaggregation of the base station” as a network becomes more disaggregated in separating out elements of the radio unit and then the distributed unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU), and introducing different vendors.

“We are working with operators and other O-RAN suppliers to figure out, what is the best way of reaggregating it,” Uitto said. Not just to ensure interoperability between different suppliers, but also to optimize network performance, network operations, lifecycle management, and ensuring standards release upgrades and features roadmaps are in alignment.

RELATED: FCC takes up formal discussion on open RAN

He sees a blueprinted way of working, or “operational standardization,” as likely a better option than treating each implementation like its own systems integration project.

“If it’s systems integration, then it starts to be very custom and not repeatable,” he said. “So it would be good to have certain industry practices and de facto ways of doing these things to reaggregating a base station for the right performance.”

A third challenge, where work with semiconductor companies is happening, deals with general-purpose cloud computing, which Uitto said isn’t very capex or opex efficient, the latter when it comes to power consumption for layer 1 processing in the baseband.

“That is where we as an industry, including the semiconductor companies are figuring out how to solve that problem,” Uitto said.

In the U.S. the FCC opened its own formal discussion about the benefits and challenges of open RAN and to see what steps the agency and other federal bodies can take to spur development.

Dell’Oro Group last month projected double-digit growth rates for global open RAN sales revenues over the next six years, with cumulative investments in open RAN including hardware, software, and firmware excluding services nearing $10 billion over the 2020-2025 period.

“The conversation and the overall attitude towards Open RAN has clearly changed over the past six months,” said Stefan Pongratz, VP and analyst at Dell’Oro, in a statement. “It is no longer a question if Open RAN will happen and the question now is more on the timing and the scope.”