BARCELONA, Spain — When did virtual radio access networks (vRAN) become such a hot topic? Although it’s just the second day of Mobile World Congress, there’s already been a couple of big announcements around vRAN. From Verizon teaming with Intel and Nokia to develop a vRAN architecture based upon a trial the companies conducted in Oklahoma City to Cisco announcing a new open vRAN initiative specifically for mobile networks.
Now comes word that the xRAN Forum is merging with the C-RAN Alliance to form the ORAN Alliance, which obviously stands for Open RAN. I spoke briefly with Sachin Katti, a professor at Stanford University who heads up the xRAN Forum and will be in charge of the technical steering committee for ORAN. He said that the C-RAN Alliance is a group formed by China Mobile to look at virtualizing the RAN. The two groups realized they were conducting complementary work and decided to merge.
The xRAN Alliance first hit our radar about a year ago when the group partnered with the Central Office Re-architected as a Data Center (CORD) open source group. At the time, the two groups said they planned to work on a software-based, extensible Radio Access Network (xRAN) architecture. The news was particularly notable because xRAN Foundation members include some big operators like Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Verizon, SK Telecom, Telstra and Docomo.
By combining with the C-RAN Alliance, ORAN now adds the firepower of China Mobile to the group as well as Orange, according to Katti.
But now it appears we’ve got three different initiatives — ORAN, Cisco’s Open vRAN, and the Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP) OpenRAN Group — all working on the same thing, which is basically to make the RAN more open using standardized interfaces and white box network elements.
What’s even more interesting is that many of the same companies (Mavenir, Altiostar, Intel, SK Telecom, and Nokia) belong to at least two of these groups and some belong to all three.
Katti said that he believes the OpenRAN and Open vRAN are complementary to ORAN because they appear to be more focused on interoperability testing and implementation and not on the structure or the architecture of vRAN.
Perhaps instead of focusing on the fact that there are so many initiatives working on opening the RAN network, I should instead look at why this is so important to operators.
Igal Elbaz, SVP of wireless network architecture and design at AT&T, shed some light on the topic when I met with him yesterday. He said that all these developments around vRAN are good for the operators because it’s a difficult task and something that requires joint effort from both vendors and operators. “We should absolutely look at this,” he said, noting that AT&T has always been in favor of open networks that are software-based and flexible. So far, however, AT&T has not announced anything about virtualizing its RAN network.
Nicki Palmer, chief network officer at Verizon, noted that open source is a journey for the company but said that it is committed to it. Palmer noted that vRAN doesn’t just bring cost benefits, but it also gives the operator a speed to market advantage.
But There’s More
Of course there’s more going on at Mobile World Congress than just some dry discussions about virtualization and the network. Here are a few tidbits that I’ve gathered as I walked the show floor and mingled with the masses.
- Although Ericsson still commands a large space in Hall 2, it is smaller than in the past with less room devoted to exhibits and more space left to meeting rooms.
- AT&T, once a premiere player in the GSMA’s Innovation City, is no longer a part of that display. Instead the operator hosts a much more subdued space in Hall 4.
- The rain and cold temperatures definitely put a damper on the GSMA’s new “South Village” area outside of the South Entrance to the Fira. Companies like Verizon and Equinix and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have few visitors to their outside meeting areas and patios. Even the food vendors in that area are idle (pro tip: get your food and drink here without waiting in line).
- Perhaps the worst job in all of the Fira Gran Via belongs to the workers handling “crowd control” who were stationed along the hallways holding megaphones while sitting atop lifeguard-like perches. I never saw a single one of them use the megaphone. I guess this MWC crowd was too tame.
- I spotted a friendly face from the past at the Ericsson media event Tuesday morning. Kris Rinne, the former SVP of network planning and technology at AT&T Labs, was visiting the booth. Rinne retired from AT&T in late 2014 but serves on Ericsson’s board. She said she’s happily spending her time traveling with her church and doing humanitarian work around the globe.