Nokia expects “full suite” of O-RAN interfaces available in 2021
Adding on to a recent refresh of its virtualized, cloud-based RAN solutions, Nokia today, after weeks of building up to it, made clear its position on open RAN and its role as a global, incumbent supplier. “We’re going for a leadership position in O-RAN,” President of Mobile Networks Tommi Uitto told RCR Wireless News in an interview. “We want to make a clear statement on our commitment. We are the only global supplier committed to open RAN.”
According to the company, O-RAN-compliant solutions will be available this year “with [a] full suite of O-RAN-defined interfaces expected in 2021.” Open radio interfaces can be combined with the vendor’s 5G AirScale Cloud RAN in what it calls a vRAN 2.0 configuration.
From virtual and cloud RAN to open RAN
On June 23, Nokia announced commercial availability later this year of its AirScale Cloud RAN solution with general availability following in 2021. This builds on what Nokia calls a vRAN 1.0 configuration which has been in commercial use in the U.S. since 2019; vRAN 1.0 refers to a virtualized base station.
The next step, vRAN 2.0, expands on that to include a distributed unit running on general-purpose x86 server hardware as well as a fronthaul gateway. “The result is a fully cloudified and disaggregated 5G base station that provides scalability, low latency, high performance and capacity, as well as several network architecture options, to meet ever-increasing market demands,” according to Nokia. vRAN 3.0 will be marked by the addition of GPU-based hardware acceleration capabilities.
In a discussion around what marks an open RAN deployment–O-RAN Alliance interface specifications and software running on kit from a single vendor or full modularity of hardware and software components–Uitto said, “You can build open RAN with bare metal and with vRAN or cloud RAN. You can build vRAN or cloud RAN which is O-RAN-compliant or not O-RAN-compliant…If an operator wants to buy hardware from a third party, then they can do so and they can put our cloud RAN software to run on top of it. Our policy in cloud RAN is that we have a full stack if somebody wants it.”
Open RAN momentum and competition
Open RAN is gaining momentum at the moment with Rakuten Mobile actively touting its virtualized network build in Japan and looking to resell its Rakuten Communications Platform to other operators, enterprises and governments. Simultaneously, open RAN vendors are working a policy angle in the U.S., positioning the technology as an alternative to Huawei–both in small, rural domestic networks and in other global markets–and looking for R&D funding and potentially market-based interventions. Nokia is pursuing an opportunity to join its global scale and existing carrier footprint with O-RAN technologies to capture this fast-developing market.
Uitto said, when he looks at the 26 operator members of the O-RAN Alliance, “all of them are my customers” except DISH in the U.S. and Reliance Jio in India. Nokia is a member of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, the O-RAN Alliance, and the Telecom Infra Project. Ericsson participates in O-RAN Alliance and has publicly commented on it’s reasons for staying out of the policy discussion.
More specifically to national decisions on whether to include Chinese suppliers in 5G network builds, Uitto said O-RAN is “good for introducing more competition. If some suppliers are not selectable, then we probably need some more suppliers in the ecosystem–more choice and more competition. And competition is good for innovation. This would be good for reducing vendor lock-in. It would be easier to change suppliers.”
In the U.S., AT&T is the most bullish, certainly the most public, supporter of O-RAN with CTO Andre Fuetsch serving as O-RAN Alliance chairman. Last month AT&T worked with Nokia to test an O-RAN Alliance-based Radio Intelligent Controller on the operator’s millimeter wave 5G network in New York City.
O-RAN Alliance’s Working Group 3 focuses on the RIC and describes its goal as defining a RIC architecture to enable “near-real-time control and optimization of RAN elements and resources via fine-grained data collection and actions over E2 interface.” In the trial, the measurement and optimization applications were used to collect live network data; Nokia refers to these applications as xApps.
In terms of global adoption, multinational operators Vodafone and Telefonica have both discussed how they see open RAN fitting into their ongoing network enhancements and builds.
Vodafone has tested open RAN technologies in parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, South Africa, Turkey and the United Kingdom. At the Telecom Infra Project Summit in November, Vodafone’s Head of Network Strategy and Architecture, and now TIP chairman, Yago Tenorio said the operator would consider open RAN vendors in a tender covering its entire European footprint.
Telefonica, an investor in open RAN baseband software vendor Altiostar, has noted the centrality of open RAN to the company’s network transformation strategy. In October last year, CTIO Enrique Blanco said, “We are designing and building cloud-based networks. This is a must because we need to monitor huge growth in the data capabilities for our customers. This network needs to be open and we need to get all these capabilities.” Telefonica is planning open RAN trials this year and in March identified some of its vendors.
O-RAN to support “portfolio integrations”
In looking ahead at the what he termed “interesting portfolio integrations” that will be made possible by further developing O-RAN interoperability specifications, Uitto looked back at work Nokia did with CommScope beginning in 2018.
The goal there was to simplify active distributed antenna system deployments by linking CommScope’s Era C-RAN antenna system via CPRI back to Nokia base stations. The companies said at the time this “will remove the need for the radio heads normally needed to feed an active DAS, hence reducing the space and power requirements…[It] will dramatically reduce the time, space and power required to connect subscribers in high-capacity public venues and enterprises.”
The combination of kit from Nokia and CommScope resulted in a win-win-win situation for the vendors and the operator customer, Uitto said, adding, “Different suppliers have some particular products in their portfolios…,especially in the RF portfolio, that some of the baseband suppliers just don’t have.”