Huawei CTO Says No to Open RAN and Virtualized RAN
Paul Scanlan, CTO of Huawei Carrier Business Group made clear what everyone already knew- that the Chinese tech giant doesn’t support Open RAN or Virtualized RAN (vRAN). On a media call today, Scanlan noted that Open RAN has a lot of problems: It isn’t standardized, it can’t be easily integrated with existing network infrastructure, and it’s not ready for the most intense period of 5G deployments coming up with 5G SA core networks.
“It’s not that it’s not going to happen, and I believe it will in different guises but I’m not sure whether … from a commercial perspective, is it too late practically? The challenge is it’s not standardized. It’s an association. Because things are not standardized, no standards, you don’t get cooperation, you don’t get competition, you don’t get innovation to drive this,” Scanlan said, describing groups such as the O-RAN Alliance as “just a bunch of friends.”
Absent standardization, technologies like open RAN become fragmented and lack interoperability — two outcomes that most network operators are unwilling to accept, according to Scanlan.
The IEEE Techblog has noted from day one that neither the O-RAN Alliance or TIP Open RAN project are standards development organizations (SDOs). Worse, is they don’t even have liaisons with ITU-R, ETSI, or 3GPP which are (although 3GPP specs must be transposed by SDOs like ETSI or submitted to ITU-R WP 5D to become binding standards).
In June, Scanlan told Asia Times that Huawei has already built enterprise networks for 2,000 manufacturing companies and plans to build 16,000 next year. The Chinese tech giant has also built 5,300 private networks for mining companies, Scanlan stated. Today, he said that the real cost for network operators is opex, rather than capex.
“The telecom operator’s problem is not capex, it’s actually opex,” he said, adding that opex eats up about 65% of the average cost per site for site rental, backhaul, and energy. RAN comprises about 12% of opex costs per site on average, he said. The implication is that Open RAN opex will be higher than that of conventional RANs with purpose built network equipment from legacy base station vendors.
Another challenge for open RAN involves security and point of responsibility. That’s because of many more exposed interfaces between different vendor equipment. In a typical open RAN deployment “you’ve got three or four vendors all providing components (modules) that are going to be patched together. Scanlan asked, “Who’s responsible for making sure that it’s going to be secure or it’s going to deliver” on performance and fall in line with guaranteed operating costs?”
“Everybody says from a cybersecurity perspective it’ll be more secure. Well, I don’t agree with that. I mean, who’s going to be responsible?”
Critics of O-RAN argue that the much-touted alternative to Huawei will be costly, cumbersome and ineffective. Henry Kressel wrote in Asia Times on December 29, 2020:
O-RAN proposes to open up only part of the proprietary wireless network, namely the part that goes from the antenna to the delivery of transportable data packets to the extended interconnection network that routs the packets to their ultimate destination. These functions are currently performed using equipment and software proprietary to each equipment vendor.
This is a big ,multiyear project that requires the collaborative efforts of industry and governments. These technologies are complex and require extremely high levels of reliability – hence, extensive and costly testing.
The O-RAN Coalition has recommended that US federal sources put $1 billion into the project. But even if government money is forthcoming, it will be only the beginning of a costly development project. One estimate from a reliable industry expert states that at least five years might be needed before competitive products meeting the new standards could reach the market.
“So many people just throw out (?) virtualization or throw out (?) vRAN, or open RAN, and all the rest for different types of reasons,” he said. “If you’ve not been either developing the technology or you’re not at the operator’s point to understand the challenges and the pain points of each of them, then often a lot of the reasons why we want to do something is perhaps for political reasons [1.] and just haven’t been very well thought out.”
Note 1. Many believe the motivation and impetus for Open RAN is to permit new base station vendors, particularly skilled in virtualization software, to enter the 4G/5G market. Two particular politically inspired vendor targets are Huawei and ZTE who are not permitted to join either O-RAN or TIP projects.
Of course there are also performance issues with the commoditized chips that will be used for Open RAN. Several years ago, Huawei explored the use of commoditized silicon in its 5G network equipment, but “the problem was that the jitter at the substrate level was too high. It would not achieve the targets that we wanted in terms of latency, so we had to develop the chip ourselves,” Scanlan said.
“For virtualized RAN, what do you want to do with virtualization, what’s the target objective? When we put things in a cloud the first thing we’re really trying to do is create flexibility and resource scaling. And because it’s software driven, we’re able to change those things and downstream everything can operate from it,” Scanlon explained.
“Within the next two or three years, there are no commercial opportunities for open RAN because of technological maturity,” Victor Zhang, Huawei’s vice president, told Light Reading when asked what Huawei was doing to support the concept. “There is still a long way to go with open RAN.”
One problem is that the general-purpose processors used in open RAN baseband equipment are less power-efficient than customized gear. Huawei summed this up in 2019. “There is a specific R&D team doing research on using white boxes with Intel CPUs [central processing units] in 4G basestations and the power consumption is ten times more,” said Peter Zhou, the chief marketing officer of Huawei’s wireless products line, at a London event. “5G is [even] more complicated and an Intel CPU gives you a problem with jitter. In terms of existing CPU technology, we haven’t seen the possibility of using that with 5G basestations.”
John Strand, the CEO of Strand Consult, thinks it inconceivable that Huawei is not privy to the O-RAN Alliance’s activities. Smaller Chinese vendors could even be representing Huawei, he has suggested. It seems highly likely that links between China Mobile and Huawei are much stronger than connections between a European operator and its main supplier.
Dell’Oro Group increases Open RAN radio and baseband revenue forecast
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Is Open RAN Too Little, Too Late for 5G? by Matt Kapko
Open RAN bears all the histrionics of an emerging technology that pits wireless industry giants and the status quo against those who want to unlock and open network interfaces to a larger group of players. It’s also mired in geopolitical posturing, highlighting a troubling chasm that threatens global cooperation and agreement on cellular technology standards.
Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the line, including the power and influence of multinational companies that effectively control the market today. It may sound hyperbolic, but it’s not a stretch to consider open RAN the most divisive technology to confront the wireless industry in many years, perhaps decades.
Open RAN commands a lot of attention, and for good reason. If it succeeds at scale, it will completely change how mobile networks are designed, deployed, and operated.
In theory, open RAN enjoys broad support. In practice, it remains rare.
“Open RAN is certainly complex, particularly given the numerous stakeholders that you have. Everyone from the OEMs to the operators, to the regulators, software companies, you name it — a lot of different people to try to align behind a common purpose,” said Dan Hays, principal at PwC’s Strategy& consultancy.
“While open RAN has run into some challenges, I don’t think that it’s going to impede the progress of the general move toward a more open architecture and toward a more software driven set of network infrastructure. That seems inevitable, but what we are seeing is that open RAN may well miss most of the 5G generation,” he said.
Of the at least 180 commercially deployed 5G networks today, one, Rakuten Mobile, is running on open RAN. Dish Network is poised to be the second sometime in early 2022.
“If you look at 5G rolling out in the most economically developed and populous countries in the world, as it already is, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have operators go back and rip and replace the 5G equipment that they’ve already invested in just to deploy open RAN,” Hays said.
Moving the Goalposts to 6G
“At this point even though it seems far away, open RAN may wind up being more of a 6G type of architecture versus one that’s widely adopted for 5G,” he added.
John Strand, CEO at the Denmark-based consultancy Strand Consult, agrees with this assessment and claims Ericsson and Nokia, despite their heavy involvement in open RAN development, don’t expect the technology to gain significant traction until the latter end of this decade.
“This is too little, too late for 5G,” he said. “Some of these things will be part of 6G,” but the standardization hasn’t yet effectively leveled up to the industry’s primary standards body 3GPP.
“The question is: How big of a percent of the installed base will be open RAN?” Strand said. “I think in 2025, less than 1%. And in 2030, less than 3%.”
Projections aside, questions also remain as to the technical readiness of open RAN, particularly in brownfield networks. Bear in mind that “decisions on mobile network infrastructure purchases, which can range in the billions of dollars, typically get made years before we ever see a commercially available service,” Hays explained.
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