India, France, US Partial Winners in US DOD Open Ran Tests

Lack of complete interoperability is the biggest obstacle to Open RAN adaptation by the major carriers. Even enthusiastic analyst Stefan Pongratz expects O-RAN to need 3 or 4 more years to get to 5% market share. The major carriers are going very slowly.

The US Department of Defense has a 5G Challenge for ” a fully integrated multivendor end-to-end 5G network.” Radisys (owned by India’s Jio), Cap Gemini (France), and Mavenir (US, India*), each won a share of the $3 million in prizes. Signal System Management (from the US defense world) and Fujitsu (Japan) also got modest grants.

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Will Huang Yuhong Create “Bell Labs with Chinese Characteristics?”


Huang Yuhong, smiling out at you at left, has just taken charge of the China Mobile Research Institute, one of the top 3 telco labs in the world. She will have the support and funding to make it the best in the world.

I met Huang first at a 2017 conference and she provided me with a major scoop. I approached the CEO of China Mobile with a question about Massive MIMO. He looked down the row and said, “Ask the woman there. She’s our expert.”

Recently, her many public comments have established her as China’s leading expert.

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Open RAN Experts: Not quite ready for prime time

Open RAN works, but the strongest supporters are clear it has a way to go. CTO Tareq Amin of Rakuten, with the most advanced deployment in the world, had to spend “hundreds of millions” on custom chips to get the performance he needs. My unofficial numbers are custom chip cost wiped out all the initial savings. Rakuten hasn’t turned on 5G yet.

Please don’t misread me as an opponent of Open RAN. It is probably the right choice for a new network today and will play a growing role in the future. But there are problems that must be solved.

Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone Group’s Head of Network Strategy & Architecture and Chairman of Telecom Infra Project (TIP), is one of the most enthusiastic supporters and has four field trials underway. Tenorio says

The big suppliers currently have the TCO upper hand. The traditional vendors have decades of experience, have thousands of employees, and are able to decide what would work better for operators. If you’re going to deploy [OpenRAN] in say, 25 sites, you may get better commercial conditions from incumbents.

There are numerous industry challenges if operators are to reap the promised open RAN benefits of a “richer ecosystem” and lower total cost of ownership (TCO). … We haven’t even scratched the surface of system integration challenges. There are one million different ways in which you can actually build a product that satisfies O-RAN specifications.

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$Hundreds of millions in extra chip costs prove Open-RAN not quite ready

Tareq Amin’s Rakuten is the most advanced Open-RAN and virtual carrier on earth. But he wasn’t able to get there using standard parts and equipment.

Rakuten pays hundreds of millions of dollars in non-recurring engineering fees to chipmakers like Qualcomm to obtain the components it needs. …We cannot find the right material at the right cost, the right architecture, to address the future requirements for 5G radios

Tareq Amin Rakuten to John Hendel of Politico

That’s an enormous sum, enough to design state-of-the-art chips. I would guess the extra cost ate up all the expected cost savings from the initial deployment. (Below) Important: Please don’t infer from this that Open-RAN is a failure, especially for new networks. Most of these problems will be solved. Meanwhile, don’t believe the hype.

Alex Choi of Deutsche Telekom is enthusiastic about Open RAN and the other buzzwords as near-future technologies, still with challenges. That’s the near-universal consensus of the top network engineers. That doesn’t mean the new networks shouldn’t pioneer, but I’ve been seeing some unfortunate datapoints:

  • Vodafone CTO Scott Petty has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters and is doing some deployments. But Laurie Clarke of New Scientist quotes Petty, “We believe by 2023, we may be able to deploy some scale in the rural parts of our network, but it will take until 2025 to be able to deploy at real scale in our denser urban and suburban areas.”
  • AT&T was the first strong backer of SDN/NFV/Ecomp, pouring a fortune into open software. It is quietly cutting back. A friend has been receiving resumes from senior people at AT&T, expecting layoffs.

Contrary to general belief, the initial saving from open and virtual RAN is modest. The hardware is cheaper, but hardware is only a small part of the network cost. For large carriers with bargaining power and good negotiators, the price of the hardware is already low.

China Mobile & China Telecom are paying US$23,000 per cell. The antenna, power supply, and a high-performing processing unit will still be required. How much could they really save if they bought radios from Mavenir or Jio/Radisys?

Smaller telcos, like AT&T or Telefonica, order closer to 10,000 cells. Nokia & Ericsson are masters at extracting maximum revenue from customers but if pressed will give great prices on the initial purchases.

Over time, the more flexible systems should be much cheaper to upgrade. Moore’s Law may be slowing, but the systems in five years will be far more capable than today. If open systems deliver on their promises, the upgrade should be cheap and easy. (That’s still unproven.)

Carl Russo at Calix has produced some of the best SDN systems, Verizon tells me. He tells me carriers who just look for initial savings will not reap the full benefit of SDN. Only those who use the flexibility and integrate better management, especially of customer offerings, receive a full return.

Nearly all telcos upgrading and densifying existing systems will likely follow a similar timeline as Vodafone, limiting new systems for several years. New builds are almost all choosing Open.

All of this is speculation until we have good data from the field, of course.