BARCELONA, Spain — Talk about virtualizing the radio access network (RAN) has been right up there with talk about the snow in Barcelona this week at Mobile World Congress. And one company in particular — Intel — seems to be involved in just about every virtualized RAN (vRAN) group and partnership out there.
Intel, along with Vodafone, leads the Telecom Infra Project’s OpenRAN group. It’s a member of Cisco’s new Open vRAN group as well as the ORAN Alliance, which formed this week when the xRAN Forum (Intel was a member) merged with the C-RAN Alliance.
The company also this week teamed up with Verizon and Nokia to develop a vRAN architecture. Last week, Telefónica and 5TONIC said they are installing the Intel FlexRAN software reference platform in the 5TONIC open 5G lab. And Intel is working with Dell EMC on 5G infrastructure including vRAN or cloud RAN (CRAN), just to name a few RAN partnerships Intel’s got in the pipeline.
“We’re very strong advocates of having an open RAN, using ‘open’ as a very general word,” said Alex Quach, VP and network platforms group general manager for 5G strategy at Intel.
Quach said there’s a simple reason why vRAN is such a hot topic and one whose time has come. It’s essential to 5G network slicing, which will let operators provide portions of their networks for specific customer uses cases.
“Part of the promise of 5G is around the ability to slice the network, and the ability to slice the network hinges upon how flexible your network is and how virtualized your network is,” he explained. “There’s virtualization happening in the back-end, the core, and now virtualization has moved toward the RAN for 5G to provide the slicing promised.”
Despite all the buzz around vRAN, there are some challenges ahead for the industry, Quach said, and a big one will be “everybody landing on the same standard.” Intel would like to work with 3GPP, which recently ratified 5G standards, on this issue. “Different components, as they get disaggregated into the RAN, how they work with each other, these are all standards we have to rally around,” he said.
And about all these vRAN and open RAN groups? Expect to see more consolidation, Quach said.
“From an existing networks perspective, things have been done a certain way, and now there’s much more opportunity around lowering cost and the ability to roll our services much faster,” he explained, adding that the transition to 5G requires a more flexible network including the RAN. “It’s a journey, and a lot of stakeholders want to start off with what they have.”
This echoes Cisco’s reasoning for starting its own vRAN group, focusing on mobile networks. “We don’t have any of our own radio assets, but we have the other 5G assets,” said Jonathan Davidson, SVP and GM of service provider networking at Cisco, in an earlier interview.
All of these vRAN groups meet the needs of existing stakeholders — but Quach predicts that at least some will ultimately join forces. “Consolidate to drive scale because this is only going to work at scale,” he said.