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ORAN's Biggest Benefit Is Faster Innovation, Says Ex-Qualcomm CEO

Moving to open radio access networks is critical to smaller players like XCOM-Labs, as well as for innovation, said its founder Paul Jacobs, the former Qualcomm CEO, during an Open RAN Policy Coalition webinar Wednesday. Other speakers said the move to the cloud will spur ORAN, but developing standards and better interoperability remain challenges.

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At Qualcomm we really needed to build the whole system to do development, and obviously at Qualcomm we could afford it,” though in the early days that meant “scrambling for cash,” Jacobs said. “It was very much consuming the company to figure out how to fund the development,” he said. Using ORAN, XCOM got a development system and hardware from a partner, so the company “really can focus on innovation,” he said: ORAN is “a platform for innovation.”

XCOM tried and failed in attempts to use platforms provided by major carriers, Jacobs said. “This isn’t all rainbows and unicorns,” he warned: “There’s a wide variation in performance capabilities across the ORAN ecosystem. While you think you’re just assembling components it’s not quite as simple as that.”

Everyone is asking what “killer app” will drive 5G and ORAN, Jacobs said. “Generically what I would say … is this ability to move compute to the network side of the link, into the cloud or into the edge,” he said. “We can then have lighter and lower-power client devices, user devices,” he said.

Technologies and gear are ready for ORAN, but the timing is tough, said Gilles Garcia, senior director-Data Center & Communications Group at Advanced Micro Devices. ORAN companies have to “make in two to three years what the traditional vendors made in 20,” he said. Industry is still finalizing standards, but the challenges “are about to be solved,” he said. Garcia predicts “much more open RAN deployment” in the second half of this year.

Garcia noted important differences between ORAN and virtual RAN. ORAN “means really that you have open interfaces between the different blocks,” he said. “VRAN means that you are virtualized and you still have proprietary interfaces between the radio and the [distributed unit], the DU and the [centralized unit], and even potentially in the 5G core,” he said.

Industry still needs better interoperability for gear that’s used in ORAN deployments, said Nick Karter, Analog Devices strategic marketing director-wireless communications. The software and front-haul between the edge and the cloud is “the biggest challenge we recognize,” he said.

We’re very eager for the opportunity that will come from open RAN and how cloud can play an integral role moving forward,” said Cheryl Davis, Oracle senior director-strategic initiatives. “We really look at cloud native as a critical building block of 5G,” she said: “It’s more efficient. It offers better scale. It’s standard-based for interoperability and portability.”

Advancements in 5G have led to faster and more intelligent networks,” said Diane Rinaldo, Open RAN coalition executive director. “As part of the 5G transition, there has been a huge uptick in solutions, allowing for the integration of open and interoperable interfaces into the radio access network,” she said. Standardization “ensures interoperability across different players and lowers the barrier to entry for new innovators, including cloud providers,” she said.