Report says AT&T may be ditching Nokia as RAN vendor

AT&T may be considering removing Nokia as one of its 5G radio access network (RAN) vendors, according to one industry analyst.

In a LinkedIn post titled “Lightning May Strike Twice for Nokia,” EJL Wireless Research President Earl Lum noted that about three years ago, Verizon decided to replace RAN equipment vendor Nokia with gear from Samsung.

“Various sources we have spoken to imply that AT&T is the next wireless operator customer to remove Nokia from their RAN vendor list,” Lum wrote Friday.

Neither AT&T nor Nokia are commenting on the report, which was first reported by Light Reading. When contacted by Fierce, each responded that they do not comment on rumors or speculation.

Cooling off 

In the post, Lum spells out how it appears to boil down to Nokia’s cooling system for their Massive MIMO solutions.

“We believe that Nokia's remaining two major U.S. wireless operator customers, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile USA have not been enamored with the fan-based massive MIMO solutions from Nokia, based on our discussions with key people at both operators,” he wrote. “We speculate that the need to employ forced air cooling was based partly on the power dissipation of the Intel ReefShark 1.0 chips used in these systems, coupled with Nokia's desire to reduce the overall system weight to match the Ericsson Gen 4 AIR6419/3219 solutions that weigh ~19-25kg.”

Lum is longtime analyst in the wireless industry known for his teardowns of infrastructure, something he started after doing a similar thing for cell phones.

AT&T has identified Nokia and Ericsson as its main 5G network vendors. Verizon uses Ericsson and Samsung, while T-Mobile relies on Ericsson and Nokia.

It’s worth noting that AT&T has a long history with Nokia, including on new network technologies. Going way back, AT&T in 1996 spun off Bell Labs, which Nokia later acquired in 2016 as part of the Alcatel-Lucent acquisition.

Lum told Fierce that he wouldn’t be surprised that if AT&T were to choose between Nokia and Ericsson, “the logical choice would be Ericsson because they have all the stuff that AT&T wants and all of their stuff has no fans.”

Nokia’s inclusion of a fan on its Massive MIMO gear makes it heavier, which isn’t good because operators need to lease space on towers and weight is a factor in how much they pay. Ericsson uses Ericsson silicon and Ericsson’s solution doesn’t require a cooling system, he said.

Lum added that AT&T has a number of spectrum issues specific to them. One is Band 14, which is for FirstNet but AT&T can use it for commercial purposes as well. It also has 3.45 GHz and C-band, which requires two Massive MIMO radios spaced apart so they don’t interfere with one another, he said.

“They have the most complicated plumbing of anyone out there for their sites to hook everything up,” he said.

Dual-band 3.45, C-band 

AT&T has talked about deploying combination 3.45 GHz and C-band radios and Ericsson earlier this year received FCC approval to manufacture them. But Lum hasn’t seen any of those out in the field. Where AT&T already has deployed two radios, they’re highly unlikely to go back in and immediately replace them with the combination radio, he said.

T-Mobile has yet to deploy its C-band and 3.45 GHz spectrum. Last year, T-Mobile talked about deploying the 3.45 GHz in 2023 in conjunction with C-band spectrum as a “one and done” operation using a single radio. That’s “unlike the AT&T approach you’ve heard about, which is two radios kind of integrated together,” said former T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray in February 2022, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

As Light Reading pointed out, some vendor-swapping rumors in the past have not come to pass.

In the case of Samsung replacing Nokia at Verizon, there was speculation in the media and from Wall Street analysts before the official announcement. Lum concluded on LinkedIn: “Again, similar to the fallout and disaster recovery after the Verizon Wireless announcement in 2020, Nokia may be forced again to explain what happened after lightning struck twice. Any announcement within the next several weeks or months may confirm the current speculation.”