Verizon committed to Open RAN efforts despite not being in O-RAN Alliance

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Verizon was involved in the creation of the xRAN fronthaul specification that was released in April. (FierceWireless)

Verizon says it’s very proud to be at the forefront of Open RAN initiatives and remains committed to Open RAN efforts, even though it was not among the operators kicking off the O-RAN Alliance last week.

Verizon, was, however, involved in the xRAN fronthaul specification that was released in April; that spec defines open interfaces between the remote radio unit/head (RRU/RRH), the baseband unit (BBU) and the operation and management (OAM) interface to simplify interoperability between suppliers.  

“At this time we are not members in the ORAN forum and are waiting to see final governance documents from the organization which are still under development,” a Verizon spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech last week. “However, we continue to coordinate with organizations across the industry on ORAN efforts.”

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And it looks like operators don’t necessarily have to wait for open RAN specifications to be developed to get their vendors to play nice in the RAN.

Case in point: Samsung is deploying 4G LTE macro equipment for Verizon as part of Verizon’s Open RAN initiative. Samsung’s RRHs and BBUs are being deployed in the midst of RRHs and BBUs from incumbent vendors, according to Alok Shah, vice president of Networks Strategy, Business Development and Marketing at Samsung Electronics America.

“Through Verizon’s leadership, a common CPRI interface definition is being used to mix and match components at the cell site,” he told FierceWirelessTech via email. “The project is going quite well,” he added, but deferred to Verizon for further details.

Shah also confirmed the Open RAN deployment with Verizon is happening at scale and is not a trial.

Samsung is a member of the xRAN Forum and also was a major contributor to the group’s v1.0 fronthaul specification that was released in April.

Such an arrangement like Verizon is doing with its vendors represents a chance for major cost reductions in the network, according to Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts and a FierceWireless contributor. The existing vendors have had a stranglehold over operators for years, and they’ve been in a position to force the operators to run dedicated hardware. But if the operators can bring in third-party radio vendors, the cost of the hardware has the potential to come down dramatically.

There are infrastructure vendors that are selling base station equipment at prices much lower than such gear is sold in the U.S. or Europe, he said. Where a base station might cost $30,000 here, the same product—maybe at a different frequency but basically the same—is being sold in India for $15,000. That’s providing motivation for operators to force the Open RAN to happen.

The predicament goes back to the way the Common Protocol Radio Interface (CPRI) was developed some 15 years ago. During the early 2000s, the OEMs were able to frustrate the operators’ desire to use different vendors in the RAN. For example, if you plug Vendor A CPRI into Vendor B CPRI, what you get is a base station that shuts itself down because it doesn’t recognize the alarms and housekeeping functions that are going on.

That narrative is fairly well-known in the industry and it has to do with how the standards were created many years ago. Vendors at the time made sure the alarms and housekeeping components were not part of the standard, so they could keep parts of it in proprietary formats, thus creating vendor “lock-in.”

As the industry moves to 5G, the networks involve more complex interactions like Massive MIMO and beam-forming, and there will still be proprietary techniques and algorithms that each vendor uses for handing off between 4G and 5G, Madden said. Those complexities likely will prevent an open RAN initiative from sweeping the industry as a single standardized protocol. He said it’s more likely that individual operators will ask vendors to work together, similar to what Verizon is doing with its vendors, with several protocols used globally in a more fragmented way.