Ericsson has finally joined the openness party in mobile infrastructure, establishing an Open Lab at its Ottawa, Canada, research facility that will focus on virtualized 5G radio access networking (RAN) technologies.
The move is a clear signal that the Swedish group realizes at least part of the RAN will inevitably shift towards more open platforms, though so far it remains aloof as regards the fully-fledged Open RAN concept.
Indeed, even though a member of the O-RAN Alliance, it caused quite a stir in the sector last year when it raised concerns about potential security issues around the technology. It has slightly back-tracked from that stance, but the company still seems to be in watch and wait mode.
The Open Lab is a collaborative venture with other companies and customers that are looking to deploy cloud RAN in 5G networks. The facility will form the hub of the effort, but much of the work will be done with partners virtually, with the focus on disaggregated as well as virtualized functionality.
Ericsson detailed its ambitious plans for the cloud RAN last October, and is working with a range of equipment and service suppliers on topics such as machine learning and network automation and optimization.
Collaborators already signed up for the Open Lab development projects include Orange, KDDI, Softbank and Turkcell on the operator’s side, and “ecosystem” partners such as Intel, Nvidia, Red Hat and Wind River. The company says other participants are set to join the effort.
According to Fredrik Jejdling, executive vice president and head of Business Area Networks at Ericsson, the lab and collaboration was created “to develop architectures and common operating standards that complement existing 5G ready technology. This initiative will help to test the limits of 5G connectivity, working closely with operators and enterprise customers globally, as the industry continues to adopt more open architectures.”
Quite a change in the direction of travel for a company that has long followed the edict of keeping its hardware and software offerings tightly integrated. To date, the only serious nod by Ericsson to the openness effort has been a virtualization joint effort with NVIDIA focusing on disaggregating hardware and software.
Most of its main rivals, such as Nokia and Samsung, have already taken the next step and significantly, if not wholeheartedly, embraced the Open-RAN compliant concept and specifications. For instance Nokia has opened up its radio units to software from Altiostar, one of the big players in the dash towards Open RANs.
Meanwhile, Huawei, by far the biggest player in the RAN business, has still to cross the Rubicon and endorse the concept, despite having numerous patents on several aspects of the technology.
On the operators’ front, in the US, Verizon and AT&T have started their journeys down the virtualization route. Both have some ways to catch up with emerging operators such as Rakuten and Dish Networks, which have planned their networks around virtualization from the word go.
Indeed, a few weeks ago, AT&T teamed with Nokia for successful testing of data calls on a fully virtualized cloud RAN. Applications included web surfing, measuring network speeds and playing back videos.
Researchers at the Open Lab site in Canada will have 100MHz of indoor mid-band spectrum and 60Mz of indoor/outdoor mid-band spectrum at their disposal for development and testing projects and what Ericsson terms “co-creation activities.” The groups will be able to create and test Cloud -RAN capabilities based on their own spectral holdings and use-case requirements, for both indoor and outdoor networks.
One of the early projects is expected to focus on testing and demonstrating deployment of Ericsson’s virtualised Distribution Unit (vDU) for operation in the low and mid-band spectrum. Both this and the accompanying Centralized Unit (vCU) were designed to run on any Intel-based COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) hardware without any special acceleration. A major advantage is that the hardware involved can be the operators’ own edge servers or a third-party cloud, and of course Ericsson’s own boxes.
And the vCU could also use the 3GPP F1 interface to Ericsson’s mid-band Radio System, or the company’s higher band mini-macro base stations.
When it launched its 5G Cloud RAN last year, Ericsson also said the vCU could eventually support some Open-RAN interfaces.
Commenting on the latest initiative, Arnaud Vamparys, Senior VP for Radio Networks at Orange, said: “In the Open RAN journey, interoperability, cloudification and automation are key topics for Orange. The collaboration with Ericsson as part of the Open Lab initiative, is allowing us to explore new flexible and innovative technologies like Cloud RAN and COTS hardware for mobile network evolution.”