Reflections on Mobile World Congress 2021 — Industry Voices: Putcha

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Most industries have already embraced cloud, but now it's telecom's turn. (Pixabay)
Shiv Putcha

MWC 2021 did not have the blizzard of announcements that one would normally associate with the show. However, against a backdrop of accelerating 5G deployments around the world and increasing attention being given by telcos to network transformation, there were several announcements related to network infrastructure that are worth exploring further.  

The first pertains to telecom and cloud.

In recent years, the “cloud” has revolutionized the way industries consume IT, and one by one the dominoes have continued to fall. But one industry vertical, telecom, was always different, heavily regulated, with extravagant five-nines performance benchmarks, privacy requirements and a litany of other reasons served up to justify why the public cloud just did not make sense for the sector.

No more! In the runup to MWC 2021, there were several announcements of communications service providers (CSPs) deepening their “partnerships” with public cloud vendors like AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, IBM and others. These partnerships are more than moving IT workloads of telcos to the public cloud, with the second wave focused on 5G mobile network cores running on public cloud platforms.  

The most significant announcement came from AT&T and Microsoft Azure. They have been partners for several years, but the significance lies in AT&T, a heavyweight telco with significant investments in building out its Telco Cloud platforms farming out its core network to be hosted on the Azure for Operators platform. This is a great deal for Microsoft and gives a lot of teeth to its ambitions in the telecom vertical.

RELATED: AT&T: Cloud deal with Microsoft validates virtualization

AWS’ incoming CEO Adam Selipsky touted conversations with “virtually every operator in the world.”  Dish and Swisscom joined his keynote. Dish is a greenfield operator but grabbed attention by becoming the first telco to go “all-in” on AWS. Brownfields like Swisscom will follow a different path, starting with migration of IT workloads before moving onto mobile cores. 

Ericsson and Google Cloud announced that they will work together to enable the Ericsson 5G portfolio on the Google Cloud Anthos platform in yet another win-win deal for both parties. Ericsson may not be the preferred partner for enterprises to deploy new edge use cases, and it would be better to partner. For its part, Google Cloud also needs deals like this because it lacks the connectivity chops those enterprises increasingly need for their respective digital transformation initiatives.

O-RAN momentum continues with Intel as the common thread

ORAN has seen a lot of momentum in recent months, with new vendors rushing in to cater to opportunities created by Huawei getting “cancelled.” Telcos faced with difficult choices for replacing Huawei in their networks are looking to established vendors like Ericsson and Nokia, but they are also accelerating their plans for ORAN.   
Amongst “Tier 2” equipment vendors, the biggest beneficiary of ORAN momentum appears to be NEC at this stage. NEC is amongst the largest of the Japanese vendors, but traditionally had little success outside Japan. In recent years, NEC is best known for its work to enable Rakuten’s mobile network in Japan. However, NEC is going beyond Japan, with recent announcements with Vodafone UK and Deutsche Telekom for Open RAN compliant massive MIMO RAN. NEC has also made a significant announcement with NTT DoCoMo to develop a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC).

RELATED: NEC and NTT Docomo develop RAN intelligent controller

Amongst the “OpenRAN specialists,” one of the companies generating tons of news flow around MWC 2021 was Mavenir, the U.S.-based vendor, including deals with Orange in France, NTT DATA, and Axiata. Besides Mavenir, the “OpenRAN specialists” include companies like Parallel Wireless, Altiostar and a host of others that have been busily evangelizing the ORAN message and are now moving beyond PoCs and trials to bigger commercial deployments. 

There is also a category of systems integrators and IT specialists who are making headway in ORAN. These include legacy systems integrators (SI’s), from large “consulting” firms like Capgemini to the ecosystem of SIs in India, like Infosys, TCS and Wipro. Traditionally, the Indian players had limited exposure to the telecom vertical, other than Tech Mahindra. But this is changing as they build up capabilities for ORAN.

Recently, TATA Consultancy Services (TCS) signed an agreement with Bharti Airtel for deployment of O-RAN 5G radio and core products. With 5G trials starting in India, the ability to prove their credentials in a demanding and cost-conscious market like in India will help TCS expand into international markets. Another example is companies like CapGemini who have become very active in the emerging market for 5G private networks and industrial IoT. Capgemini had a big announcement with Qualcomm for a joint go-to-market partnership targeting private 5G networks for verticals. 

Besides the legacy SIs, telcos are potential SI’s. Rakuten in Japan is the poster child for the new network architectures that ORAN promises but it has proven that a telco can become a systems integrator. Rakuten has not only done the hard yards in specifying, procuring and integrating its network, it has taken this experience and packaged it to offer the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) to other telcos. Reliance Jio Platforms (JPL) in India has announced that it has developed a completely “Made in India” ORAN-compliant stack that it will use for its 5G deployment in India. JPL is following a similar trajectory to Rakuten and will eventually offer its own version of the RCP.

RELATED: Rakuten Communications Platform wants to conquer the world: Entner

It is also worth highlighting the role of Intel in driving ORAN. Intel has quietly been building a large ecosystem with its FlexRAN architecture and its labors are now beginning to bear fruit. Not only are the new players building on Intel architectures, but Ericsson and Nokia are also bringing their baseband software onto x86 processors.

Other semiconductor firms could potentially create a market for ORAN gear, including Qualcomm, Marvell and Xilinx, but they are all playing catch up and are far more likely to get traction in the distributed unit (DU) piece of the equation. Indeed, one of the Qualcomm announcements at MWC 2021 was for a new DU accelerator card, designed to “offload” processing from the CPUs for several baseband functions. 

Shiv Putcha is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Mandala Insights, an independent, boutique analyst firm that offers insights, opinions and research on the network and emerging technologies that will drive the next billion digital opportunities in Asia. Shiv is also keenly focused on the intersection of rising enterprise productivity, Industry 4.0 and 5G. Prior to founding Mandala, Shiv covered the telecommunications industry in Asia-Pacific for IDC and Ovum, along with stints at the Yankee Group, Qualcomm and LogicaCMG while based in the United States.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.