SAN JOSE, Calif. — AT&T is redoubling efforts to reduce the power and control that infrastructure vendors have held over the telecom industry for decades. The carrier this week made a series of announcements at the Open Networking Summit aimed at fostering a more open and interoperable approach to the hardware and software that powers radio access networks (RAN).
The initial seed code for the 5G RAN Intelligent Controller, which AT&T co-developed with Nokia, was contributed to the Linux Foundation in partnership with the O-RAN Alliance as open source software. “This is really the first open source project that we’re launching. There will be more down the road, but this is really the first step here in terms of opening up the radio access network,” Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO at AT&T, told SDxCentral.
“We want to be able to expose more of the controller so we can drive more visibility and more control. And when you have more visibility and control, then you have programmability,” he said. “It is going to break the vendor and technology lock in” and “open up a whole new level of interoperability. … Traditional areas of the network that have been controlled by a few are now being opened up to many.”
Having more competition, more developers at the table and lowering the entry barrier will ultimately drive better solutions and experiences for AT&T’s customers, Fuetsch explained. “O-RAN will help drive greater interoperability between RAN equipment vendors,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that all the O-RAN operators are highly motivated to drive more innovation and interoperability, and thus competition into their radio access networks.”
Participation from incumbent RAN suppliers is critical to that effort, and a majority of vendors have at least joined the O-RAN Alliance, but some are contributing much more than others, Fuetsch explained.
Window of Opportunity
With AT&T’s standards-based 5G network already live in a dozen cities and nine more coming soon, Fuetsch dismissed the notion that open-standard efforts such as the RAN Intelligent Controller are arriving too late for 5G. “5G is a great window of opportunity to get these initiatives going,” he said.
The operator this week announced that its white box switches that interconnect servers in the network cloud are live and carrying 5G traffic. This is part of the company’s push to virtualize and SDN control 75 percent of its core network functions by 2020. “This year our goal is to get to 70 percent,” Fuetsch said in his keynote. “We left all the hard stuff for last.”
Here at the ONS Summit 2019 event, AT&T is demonstrating a white box cell site gateway router that supports high bandwidth requirements for 5G cell site backhaul, boasting potential speeds up to 100 Gb/s.
“These white boxes and open source routing software that we’re deploying, the cell site router initiative that we’re putting in is going to 65,000 (domestic) cell sites over the coming years,” Fuetsch said. The white box routers have also been installed in Toronto and London for business customers with plans to expand to 76 countries by the end of this year, according to AT&T.
Fuetsch declined to give a timeframe for when a majority of AT&T’s network might operate on open source-based hardware, but said certain aspects of it will in the coming years.
Speaking more broadly about AT&T’s motivations for open source, Fuetsch identified security, freedom of choice, flexibility, and interoperability. “As we shift from a hardware-centric network to a more software-centric network we needed a way to get our software to become more open, more flexible. We also were looking for software that’s more secure. Open source is inherently more secure because you have more eyeballs on it,” he said.
“We believe that not only having more open reference designs on the hardware level but also having more open source based projects in that ecosystem will drive more innovation, more economic solutions, more competition, thus a better experience and products and services for our customers,” he said. “Open source has really become a major foundation to a lot of our major network initiatives.”