In the new Wild West of wireless, established vendors are under fire

Operators and their vendors spend a lot of time defining the standards on which they will base their equipment and services, like with 5G and most every other “G” that came before. In the open source community as well, they’re coming together in places like the Open Network Foundation (ONF) to create reference designs that form the basis of what they’re trying to do.

In another sense, it’s very much the Wild West in that there’s a sense of disruption from open source circles that threaten the longtime global incumbents of wireless infrastructure—think the Ericsson, Nokia and Huaweis of the world—but pose great opportunities for smaller companies to get a cut of the business.

Radisys, a 30-year-old company, traditionally has been a supplier of components to telecom equipment manufacturers (TEMs), but it has been transforming itself in recent years. Having gotten wind of operators’ interest in SDN and NFV and their attempts to break vendor lock-in, the company decided to sell directly to operators as well as to TEMs. Radisys has been active with open source consortiums and was early to join ON.Lab; it’s also active in the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP).

Brian Bronson
Radisys CEO Brian Bronson

Radisys CEO Brian Bronson told FierceWirelessTech that the company has done a number of things over the last couple of years to put itself in a position to disrupt. Most recently, it took steps to open source pieces of its own IPR.

That hasn’t been without a struggle and that’s reflected in its financials. Radisys is now trading around 70 cents a share, and Bronson is well aware this transition is glacial in nature for the telcos and is not going to happen overnight. Operators are still handing purchase orders to the longtime infrastructure vendors; there’s just no denying that it's going to take time to turn the tides.

Yet there are signs that things are looking up. Radisys closed multiple new bookings during the first quarter of this year, the most significant being an over $3 million award from a Tier 1 service provider in Europe, where it’s enabling the migration to a CORD architecture over the course of this year.

Even though the company employs about 650 people, it’s trying to act more like a nimble startup. It aims to be a systems integrator of open source-centric solutions—and Bronson points out that not everything is fully open source, but it’s “open source-centric,” leaving room for vendors to add their secret sauce.

Open Source Drivers

In March, ONF announced a new strategic plan for helping the industry move open source, next-generation SDN solutions into production. ONF members AT&T, China Unicom, Comcast, Google, Deutsche Telekom, NTT Group, Telefonica, and Turk Telekom jointly developed and approved the plan, which puts operators in the driver’s seat more than ever when it comes to getting what they want from the supply chain.

RELATED: ONF isn’t waiting around for traditional OEMs to get their open-source act together

More recently, ONF provided an update to its strategic plan and announced four new specific Reference Designs that are “blueprints” for how to put common modular components together to address specific deployment use cases for the emerging edge cloud. Adtran, Dell EMC, Edgecore Networks and Juniper Networks joined as partners to invest in Reference Design activities.

Every operator is at a different stage and what Adtran is trying to do is enable their vision for the future without ignoring the fact that they have to migrate existing networks, said Jay Wilson, senior vice president, Technology and Strategy, at Adtran.

“There’s definitely opportunities that we are in and that we are getting in that we previously wouldn’t be considered for,” due to carriers’ past reliance on big incumbents, he said.

Changing The Specs

In April, the xRAN Forum announced the availability of a fronthaul specification that effectively enables an operator to buy a remote radio unit (RRU) from one vendor and a baseband unit (BBU) from another. That was seen as a game-changer for the industry in that it opened up an area that’s been locked down by the biggest radio infrastructure players the past 10 to 15 years due to the Common Protocol Radio Interface (CPRI). 

Mavenir works with more than 300 operators around the globe, so it’s not exactly small potatoes. But that change in the spec effectively opened up the market to disruptors like itself. “It makes it a lot easier and we can finally compete on a level playing field from a technical perspective,” said Mavenir Business Development SVP John Baker.

Telefónica and Vodafone are each issuing a Request for Information (RFI) for OpenRAN solutions as part of TIP, which launched its OpenRAN Project Group in 2017 with the aim of developing fully programmable RAN solutions based on General Purpose Processing Platforms (GPPP) and disaggregated software.

John Baker
Mavenir SVP John Baker

Mavenir plans to respond to the RFIs. The company believes in open interfaces and the necessary disruption in the industry for operators to become profitable or, for that matter, to even provide basic coverage, Baker told FierceWirelessTech via email.

“To date the radio interfaces have been controlled by the three main suppliers stifling innovation and limiting growth,” he said. “Building wireless networks is also very much about the cost of the dedicated hardware and the availability of transmission between the cell tower and the data center for either front haul or back haul. TIP and xRAN are revisiting the proprietary interfaces with technical solutions that use minimal transmission bandwidth, and off-the-shelf computing hardware eliminating the barriers placed by the current status quo.”

Such an architecture will allow white box radios to be connected to white box computing platforms with minimal transmission between them. Mavenir has publicly stated that moving to cloud RAN solutions will give a 37% or better TCO savings over a five-year period.  

RELATED: Editor's Corner—Open source communities and standards bodies are starting to hit their stride

Of course, cost savings are the big driver behind this movement to open systems, and it’s about getting the cost per bit down to a level at which the traditional service providers can compete with the webscale companies.

Mavenir is actively participating in two TIP labs testing solutions for non-ideal front haul; non-ideal front haul is where the latency of the transmission medium cannot be guaranteed to meet the 3GPP specification. The company says TIP is a valid catalyst in bringing these solutions together for testing and evaluation. 

Today there are several Open RAN activities. Earlier this year, the xRAN Forum announced it was merging with the C-RAN Alliance to form the O-RAN Alliance. Cisco, which is spearheading a multi-vendor Open vRAN ecosystem initiative for mobile networks, is looking at transmission architectures and non-ideal front haul. “The combination of the work in TIP in the xRAN space is powerful and encourages the industry to bring open specifications and solutions to the underserved," Baker said.

Dave Gibbons, CEO of Seattle-based Opanga Networks, a provider of software-based video optimization solutions to improve network capacity, is trying to get the word out about the cost savings his company can offer operators. And with operators like AT&T aggressively leading the way to virtualization, it’s a good time for someone like Opanga. “That environment for us is fantastic,” Gibbons said. “This move to open, virtualized, SDN environments is very beneficial to our company.”