T-Mobile, Sprint, Orange signal hesitation on vRAN and oRAN push

vRAN and oRAN were big topics at the recent Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain. Image: Mike Dano/FierceWireless

Although a number of major carriers and vendors made significant announcements recently around virtualized RAN (vRAN) and open RAN (oRAN) technologies, some network operators are showing some vacillation on the topic.

“I think that vRAN and oRAN are exciting opportunities, but I don't see that they're going to materialize in the near term,” said T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray on the sidelines of the recent Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain.

"I think that virtualized RAN is clearly an exciting opportunity, it's just early,” he explained. “I'd love to have a RAN product where I didn't have to worry about frequency banding and software-defined radios and all those good things. These are wish lists that we've had as operators for many years, but I think it's going to be some time before it's materially delivered.”

Ray’s comments on the so-called “open RAN” push offered a similar hesitancy. “On oRAN, if you think about the necessary R&D and investment into bringing what is very complex technology to market, I think there's a period of time where those investments need to be realized to support the level of investment that's needed to bring the technology to market in the first place,” he said. “Obviously we're evaluating capabilities out there but we're spending a lot of time with our existing vendors on making sure we can deliver products in the time frame that is required and needed.”

Ray’s comments on the topic largely dovetailed with similar comments from European wireless operator Orange.

"We did not go beyond trials or a proof of concept [for vRAN technology] because of the business case," Orange’s Yves Bellego told Light Reading. "As of today it remains cheaper and simpler to upgrade each and every site."

But an executive from Sprint offered a slightly more optimistic outlook on the topic. Sprint’s Ron Marquardt told SDxCentral the operator might join the new ORAN Alliance that’s pushing open RAN technology. However, he noted that “it looks a lot like ONAP with China Mobile and AT&T driving it.” (ONAP is a platform that now sits in the Linux Foundation designed to orchestrate and automate physical and virtual network functions within telecom operator networks.)

The ORAN Alliance, sporting members including AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Docomo and Orange, launched during the MWC show to “combine and extend the efforts of the C-RAN Alliance and the xRAN Forum into a single operator led effort.”

"To take full advantage of the flexibility of 5G, we have to go beyond the new radios and change the overall architecture of the end-to-end system," said AT&T’s Andre Fuetsch in a release from the new alliance. "Open modularity, intelligent software-defined networks, and virtualization will be essential to deliver agile services to our customers. ORAN will accelerate industry progress in these areas."

The formation of the ORAN Alliance was just one of many movements on the vRAN and oRAN front during the show. For example, TIM and Ericsson said they have started to digitalize TIM's nationwide radio access network in Italy starting in the city of Turin, while vendor JMA Wireless announced its XRAN Adaptive Baseband platform that the company said is “100% software that is designed to scale to commercial networks on off-the-shelf server technology.” And Cisco announced it will form “a multivendor ecosystem designed to address these issues and accelerate the viability and adoption of Open vRAN solutions,” and said vendors including Altiostar, Aricent, Intel, Mavenir, Phazr, Red Hat and Tech Mahindra have agreed to join it.

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Verizon too during MWC discussed its progress from centralized RAN to vRAN and oRAN. "Open RAN requires a virtual RAN for the most part. Having a virtual RAN allows us to have best of breed in every piece of the network,” Verizon’s Nicola Palmer explained during the show.

The general push from hardware-focused radio access network (RAN) architectures to centralized, virtualized and open RAN systems generally is geared toward allowing operators to manage their networks with inexpensive and upgradable software components from a variety of vendors running on mostly standard computing elements, instead of hardware and software that is tied together and only available from select suppliers.