It’s no longer just trials and talk: open RAN deals and deployments are slowly picking up steam.
In 2019, MTN Group detailed plans to deploy 5,000 open RAN sites. There was even more activity in 2020, with Bharti Airtel pushing Altiostar’s open virtual RAN software live in its network in April; Vodafone UK pledging to deploy at least 2,600 compatible sites by 2027; and Telefonica targeting rollout of thousands of nodes across its footprint over the next five years.
Earlier this month, KDDI tapped Fujitsu to supply radios for a virtualised 5G network. And then, of course, there are Rakuten Mobile and Dish Network, which are pretty much exclusively relying on the approach for their greenfield networks.
But Vodafone Group executives recently pushed global peers to make even more large-scale commitments, arguing these were necessary to spur further development.
So, where do North American operators stand on open RAN?
Leaving Dish Network aside, AT&T, T-Mobile US, Verizon and UScellular are all members of the Open RAN Alliance (O-RAN Alliance), with all but T-Mobile also part of the Open RAN Policy Coalition lobby group.
T-Mobile is the only US operator which is a member of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP).
An AT&T representative told Mobile World Live (MWL) it plans to deploy open RAN in its network as equipment becomes available. The representative added work has already begun on fronthaul systems, but noted it will “take multiple years to mature the standards, explore, build, deploy, learn, tune and scale”. Trials are underway and “we are gradually introducing O-RAN interfaces and capabilities into the network”.
To move forward, the representative said AT&T needs to see “maturity and standardisation of the O-RAN specifications, interfaces and architecture”. It is also seeking broad support for management interfaces which can improve tooling, capabilities and costs; common data and information models; and an ecosystem of RAN applications which can enable new business models.
T-Mobile and Verizon echoed AT&T’s concerns.
During a forum on open RAN hosted by the US Federal Communications Commission in September, Verizon director of network infrastructure planning Lori Fountain said it was an “early adopter” of the approach, but conceded it was “kind of at the first step of that journey”.
She acknowledged open RAN was “the future”, but explained “scale and maturity” remained a challenge.
“We have a mature network here at Verizon and it’s not a greenfield network…We will be adopting this critical architecture and in a timeframe that successfully allows the network to mature gracefully but, at the same time, protecting our customers”.
T-Mobile president of technology Neville Ray approached the topic with a much more critical lens in November, telling an investor conference the approach was “not ready for prime time”.
He said there is too much uncertainty over who ensures R&D alignment and where responsibility lies for helping operators resolve network issues when something goes wrong. And he noted the oft-touted cost benefits of open RAN will depend heavily on who pays system integration and maintenance costs.
UScellular VP of advanced technology and systems planning Narothum Saxena told MWL in June multi-vendor testing was underway and it would likely begin deployments in 2021. He flagged interoperability as one of the biggest challenges which needed to be addressed. An operator representative confirmed his comments stand.
Of the big three Canadian players, only Bell Canada and Telus are O-RAN Alliance members. None are part of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) or Open RAN Policy Coalition.
A Bell Canada representative told MWL its O-RAN Alliance membership means it is “working closely with our global partners on the development of industry specifications, best practices and the full potential of what open RAN will mean for network innovation”. It plans to commence trials in 2021 to “further develop” deployment strategies.
In September, Telus VP of network and architecture strategy Bernard Bureau said open RAN capabilities from vendors would be a core requirement of its future network deals, but stopped short of saying when it might deploy the technology. It did not respond to a request for information about its plans.
Rogers Communications’ stance and plans are unclear: it does not appear to have issued any press releases on the matter and declined MWL‘s request for comment.
Interest in open RAN among operators in Mexico is even harder to pin down.
AT&T and Telefonica have businesses in the country, but the former said its comments above only applied to the US and did not elaborate on its plans for Mexico before MWL‘s publication deadline. Meanwhile, Telefonica indicated it would focus open RAN deployments on Brazil, Germany, Spain and the UK. Telefonica is an O-RAN Alliance and TIP member.
America Movil is not a member of either, and did not respond to a request for comment.
It will be interesting to see how operator plans change and develop as trial results roll in and open RAN continues to mature.
During the TIP Insights Series EMEA event last month, Vodafone executives predicted deployments would pick up in rural environments in Q1 2021, before spreading to residential urban areas in Q2 and Q3, and dense urban areas from Q4 and into 2022.
Only time will tell if the timeline will hold, but by this point in 2021 we should have a much clearer picture of how open RAN is shaping up in North America and beyond.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.Subscribe to our daily newsletter Back