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Dish's 5G Network Seen as Proof Point for ORAN in Massive Deployments

Dish Network’s launch of a stand-alone 5G open radio access network is proof that ORAN can be deployed on a “massive” scale, said Stefano Cantarelli, Mavenir chief marketing officer, during the TelecomTV ORAN summit Thursday. Dish is working with Mavenir on that deployment. Other speakers said use of ORAN is growing, but ORAN companies haven't turned a profit and need more direction from carriers.

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There’s no doubt that open RAN has become really the architecture for the future of radio access networks,” but it “will take some time to deploy,” Cantarelli said. Over the past four years “a lot of myth” has been proven wrong, he said. “People were saying it’s not going to work, and so on,” he said: ORAN “is there -- it’s alive, it’s kicking, it’s working and it’s the alternative.”

ORAN is deploying at a faster pace than before, with thousands of sites expected to be deployed over the next three months, Cantarelli said. The “real differentiator” for ORAN comes through stand-alone deployments, he said: “It’s about cloud-native, it’s about provisioning in a different way than what [providers] have been using in the past. … Really the ultimate goal for virtualization is automation, which really creates a lot of opportunity for developing new applications and, of course, for decreasing the overall operational costs.”

ORAN is moving forward with operator trials underway and an increasing number of chipsets available, said Volker Ricker, CommScope product line manager-ORAN. But providers need to “speak up” and say “when and in which volume they need hardware and software,” he said: “Nobody in the open RAN industry is making money today. We need to prepare and finalize our products for deployments.”

Ricker said most of the ORAN trials he’s aware of are in rural markets. “If they want to move into cities they need cutting-edge capacity features, like carrier aggregation, dynamic spectrum sharing and also smart scheduling of the traffic over the different layers of the network,” he said. ORAN also needs massive multiple-input and multiple-output units, which will carry most traffic in congested areas, he said. The first massive-MIMO units are available but need to be tested in cities, he said.

BT has several ORAN trials running, including one with Nokia aimed at “trying to understand the power” of the RAN intelligent controller (RIC), said Neil McRae, BT chief architect. “We think that’s one of open RAN’s biggest and greatest strengths -- it allows us to drive the network in a much more refined, granular way, to be able to adjust the experience for customers … and really run the radio network much more in real time,” he said. Test results have been positive though “it’s still very early days,” he said: “We think that RIC is one of the most exciting parts of open RAN.”

ORAN won’t save BT “tons of money -- let’s be realistic,” McRae said. “It is going to allow us to increase the performance of the radio network,” he said. “As the U.K.’s No. 1 network, we’re here to stay No. 1,” he said. Using ORAN gives BT a choice of more suppliers, but “I’m not entirely sure the technology is widely different between them,” he said. The chipsets for components like the RAN distributed unit come from a limited number of suppliers and that isn’t changing, McRae said.

ORAN is “ready for prime time,” said Constantine Polychronopoulos, Juniper vice president-5G and telco cloud. The ORAN RIC is “deployable today” and his company is in field trials with Vodafone and other providers, he said. “Have we reached scale? No,” he said: “Are we going to run into challenges? Yes. But let’s look at the big picture.” ORAN means carriers can move from a rigid architecture “that you cannot really change” to one that’s software-based that “you can keep upgrading all the time without worrying about disrupting operations, disrupting subscribers,” he said.

There are some very good reasons to be bullish” on ORAN, said Appledore analyst Francis Haysom. Providers are used to buying hardware RAN components, requiring years of planning, he said. “The dynamics of software are just completely different -- you can adapt,” he said.

Carriers will adopt ORAN based on their willingness to take risks, Haysom said. “If all you want to be is a continued mobile-broadband solution, then sure, wait for the standard,” he said. Providers that “want to do something different, want to be ahead of the curve” are starting to deploy now, he said. With risks come opportunities, he said.

One advantage with 5G is a single standard, unlike earlier generations of wireless, said Rimma Iontel, chief architect at Red Hat, a software company. “Here we know exactly what we’re working for,” she said: “We know that it's primarily software based, and what we need to stress over is keeping it that way. Going away from dependence on the underlying hardware infrastructure … is crucial.” Carriers don’t have to make huge initial investments, she said. “You can dip your toe in and throw it away if it doesn’t work,” she said.