Open RAN gets real, especially in second half of 2020

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The open RAN train is gaining speed with a variety of new names in the radio ecosystem. (Getty Images)

The open RAN train really started gaining steam in the second half of 2020, especially after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its Forum on 5G Open Radio Access Networks.

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the FCC from holding its forum in March, but when the show happened virtually in September it included a lineup of advocates for open RAN, including a kick-off keynote from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Other speakers included executives from all the top open RAN vendors, including Parallel Wireless, Mavenir and Altiostar, among others.

The forum was a rallying session for the technology. Open RAN is viewed by the United States government as a realistic strategy for wireless providers to avoid using telecommunications equipment from Chinese vendors such as Huawei and ZTE.

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Sachin Katti, who is co-chair of the O-RAN Alliance Technical Steering Committee, also participated at the FCC’s forum. Earlier in the year, Katti talked to Fierce about the liaison agreement between the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was formed to hopefully prevent duplication of efforts. Asked what he thought of governments weighing in on a telecommunications technology, Katti said, “Even I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention for O-RAN, in three and a half short years being part of U.S. policy.”

At the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) virtual conference in October, Vodafone’s head of group network architecture Santiago Tenorio announced the results of an RFI for open RAN radio hardware.

RELATED: Vodafone names top radio companies in its open RAN RFI

Tenorio named the frontrunners in the RFI, which included some familiar companies such as Fujitsu, Mavenir and Airspan. But there were also some not-so-familiar names including Baicells, Comba and NTS. All the new vendors are an indication that open RAN is being successful in expanding the radio ecosystem.

Tenorio also gave an update on TIP’s own internal project to build open RAN radios – the Evenstar Project. TIP launched Evenstar In February with a team that included members from Facebook, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, MTI and AceAxis, among others.

Evenstar’s aim was to design and manufacture a general-purpose radio for 4G and 5G networks aligned with 3GPP and O-RAN Alliance specifications. And the project wanted its radio to cost less than $1,000.

We learned this month that the first Evenstar radio comes from Mavenir and an obscure, Taiwanese radio vendor – Microelectronics Technology (MTI). 

RELATED: Mavenir and MTI deliver first Evenstar open RAN radio

Katti had mentioned MTI back in May. Katti said efforts through the O-RAN Alliance and TIP are providing new opportunities for contract manufacturers such as MTI, which have historically been invisible because they build radio hardware for bigger vendors such as Ericsson and Nokia. “They have RF IP, and now they’re seeing an opportunity to sell directly to operators rather than to a traditional channel like Ericsson and Nokia,” said Katti.

MTI’s name also came up recently when Dish Network said it had reached an agreement with MTI for O-RAN radio units to support its nationwide greenfield network deployment.

Mavenir encourages new vendors

Further stoking the open RAN momentum, last week Mavenir announced that it is establishing a new business unit that will develop hardware and software designs for open RAN radios. Its goal is to create an ecosystem of radio vendors that will build open RAN radios for the specific needs of operators around the world.

Mavenir’s CEO Pardeep Kohli said open RAN won’t be successful unless there are radios that suit the needs of many operators all around the globe who have different spectrum and different requirements. “We want to reduce the complexity of building a radio,” said Kohli.

So the open RAN ecosystem really does seem like it might explode in 2021. All the excitement now raises a new question: What if China taps open RAN to breach networks?

RELATED: Irony Alert: What if China taps open RAN to breach networks?

Telecom consultant John Strand suggests that the presence of Chinese companies in open RAN groups, such as the O-RAN Alliance, could pose a security threat to networks. It would be ironic if countries worked so hard to expunge all Huawei and ZTE gear from their networks, only to have China gain a backdoor to these same networks via open source.

Strand said, “However commendable the notion of open RAN may be from a technical perspective, it appears that China has already outwitted Western leaders. China can afford to lose the Huawei battle if it wins the war on standardizing and building billions of 'open,' 'interoperable,' and 'vendor neutral' devices. As long as China influences the O-RAN specifications and manufacturing, it does not care whose brand is used.”