Saturday, 07 November 2020 12:28

NEC: O-RAN to challenge ‘closed system’ 5G RAN vendors Featured

Richard Duggan, GM, Critical Infrastructure, IoT & Intelligent Transport Solutions, NEC Australia Richard Duggan, GM, Critical Infrastructure, IoT & Intelligent Transport Solutions, NEC Australia

With the recent entry of NEC into the UK market as a 5G RAN supplier, and Dish Network entering the US 5G market building a new network from scratch using an open RAN (O-RAN) approach, the challenges are starting to mount against closed system vertically and horizontally integrated 5G RAN providers.

NEC believes that at the end of the day, economics will dictate for wireless CSPs that O-RAN architecture rather than closed RAN systems will be the inevitable winner in the 5G space.

“Our focus is on the radio access network in the 5G domain and we’re taking a fairly innovative approach using an open ecosystem,” said NEC Australia’s Richard Duggan, GM, Critical Infrastructure, IoT & Intelligent Transport Solutions.

“This means our approach is therefore different from many of the conventional suppliers in the market place and we believe that an open ecosystem enables communication service providers (CSPs) basically to be free from monolithic vendor locking.

“This will enable them to access a diverse innovative selection of not only products but also the ability to deliver use cases and new services throughout the industry.”

NEC, like its competitors, will obviously be a supplier of antenna hardware for 5G RAN base stations but it will be disaggregated open source software driving the antennas where the company sees itself playing a role of systems integrator in conjunction with partner companies within the O-RAN ecosystem.

“We’re focussed in on a number of areas,” said Duggan.

“Obviously our radio units (RU) like we have in Japan already in the deployments there. Also the NEC company Netcracker (a supplier of software for SDN, BSS and VNF) throughout the infrastructure and we see ourselves as a systems integrator for telecom operators.”

But what about existing infrastructure with RU equipment from multiple suppliers. How does NEC intend to play the role of systems integrator in that environment?

“We have got an ecosystem of partners we have been working with for some time in that space and we have a number of already proven integrations into our reference model. Obviously as time goes by that will expand on customer need and market demand,” said Duggan.

But what of the traditional already well-established vendors like Ericsson and Nokia that have already deployed legacy RAN equipment with tightly integrated hardware and software?

“Obviously we are going to look forward to some of the more traditional vendors opening up so that we are able to integrate into them as well,” Duggan said.

“But at the moment we’re focussed on more of the newer breed of suppliers in this space and integrating the products in the open standards model, testing those integrations and then rolling therm out so that customers can take advantage of the benefits of open RAN (O-RAN) and the economies of scale that go along with it.

“In terms of the integration, like many things over the years we are really following the path of what you’ve seen in many other industries where monolithic horizontally integrated business models have started to be broken down.

“This has particularly been the case in the computing world, where you have seen all the virtualisation over the last decade or two and advent of software services and so on.

“Some of these things are happening with the RAN now so you have all the traditional vendors that I’m sure as time goes by that they’ll start being more open in their approach to integrating with other players in this space.

“But right we’re planning on forging ahead and making sure that the client gets the best of breed components that they need to achieve the outcome they’re looking for.”

And who are some of the suppliers that NEC has been working with in its self-described open ecosystem, aside from its own company Netcracker?

“Cisco we’ve been working with in the OSS (operations support systems) and MIMO space, Red Hat in terms of virtualisation, Dell in terms of the actual platform, Altiostar (a vRAN technology provider), Mavenir (a cloud-native software provider), as well as a couple of others,” said Duggan.

In terms of the radio units, NEC recently collaborated with US semiconductor maker Analog Devices to design a 5G Network Massive MIMO Antenna Radio Unit for Japanese operator Rakuten Mobile.

“What O-RAN will do is take away that layer of complexity and cost of equipment in the middle and move the smarts in the RAN into software in a standard stable x86 compute environment and manage the distribution of those applications through automation, orchestration and virtualisation within the mobile edge compute cloud or the data centre.”

So does this mean at the end of the day the idea that a few major proprietary players like Ericsson and Nokia can forget about having the 5G RAN market to themselves now that Huawei has been frozen out?

“I think that any market that ends up with only two major players at the same time that there is a set of technologies that can be used to build an open alternative to those players means that the market is going to have change in some way,” said Duggan.

For the foreseeable future, however, Duggan admits that it’s going to be a hard sell to get the big operators to move away from the traditional RAN suppliers.

“Right now in the race to deploy some 5G and be able to do the sub-6 GHz coverage layer, at least for the first rollout of handsets, a lot of carriers (abroad) and in Australia will be continuing to roll their existing plans out that they have had to adjust to since Huawei’s exit,” he said.

“I think whilst they will be doing that they will obviously be taking a long hard look at the long term economics and operating model.”

However, for the long term, Duggan points out that the Australian operators know what is happening in the O-RAN world.

After all, the big three Australian mobile operators are all members of (or owned or affiliated with members) of the O-RAN Alliance.

Then again, like NEC, Ericsson and Nokia, are contributor members of the O-RAN Alliance. Interestingly, fixed line operator NBN Co is also a contributor member.

As for the rollout of standalone mmWave 5G networks, it’s a whole new ball game but, as Duggan emphasised, the operators are going to have to take a hard look at the economics.

“Beyond the hype (of mmWave 5G), the big question for the operators is how they are going to turn the technology into services that users are willing to pay for.”

This article first appeared on

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