Carriers, vendors work to promote 5G-network flexibility with open standards

The ORAN Alliance is working on standards that could help create 5G networks that are software-driven and less reliant on a single-vendor to ensure interoperability

5G light trails
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The big wireless carriers and 5G equipment vendors are working together on standards to promote better interoperability among the gear needed to provide the high-speed wireless service.

The ORAN (stands for open radio access networks) Alliance, founded in Germany in 2018, is working on open software interfaces between the different layers of the carrier-equipment stack to give providers more flexibility as they roll out 5G services that include support for IoT and ultra-low-latency applications. The group has more than 200 members ranging from carriers, to hardware and software vendors of all stripes.

Current standards for carrier systems are highly vendor-specific, closed, and vertically integrated. This means that a company selling front-end base-station equipment also sells products that work well with its own link equipment, base-station controllers, and so on up the stack to the data center. Frequently such equipment is not designed to play well with equipment from other vendors, so a carrier that wants to use a different vendor’s gear at some part of the stack for cost or capability reasons might be locked into its primary vendor.

ORAN is trying to change that by creating open standards at every level to enable multi-vendor networks and the use of white-box equipment. Such interoperability is key in the 5G era, which will feature a far greater range of wireless capabilities and much denser equipment deployments.

Ivan Seskar, associate director at Rutgers University’s experimental systems and prototyping office, WINLAB, said that 5G, in fact, is what’s driving the move toward increased openness in the world of licensed wireless equipment.

“Hardware’s less and less important because more and more functions are implemented in software,” he said. “Once you have that, you’re trying to make sure that this software is somewhat standardized. If you really look at the technological drivers, it’s the need for customized deployments of communications systems.”

A simple form of 5G customization might be frequency slicing, for example, at a major sporting event in a specific area. A provider might want to devote specific frequency resources to keeping high-quality video moving and leave the rest available for other traffic. Right now, that would require the carrier’s equipment vendor to figure out how to enable it, according to Seskar. But frequency slicing an ORAN standard. So, if it were available at the software level, and the network provider was using ORAN-compliant equipment, the capability could be quickly added on the fly.

“If it’s all open and public, I can hire two guys in New Jersey who can write me a plugin to manage a set of base stations,” said Seskar.

The concept is similar to what happened to the computing industry about 20 years ago, according to Manu Gosain, senior technical program director at Northeastern University. Where there used to be heavily integrated vendor stacks, data centers and networking and most other major facets of IT now communicate using agreed-upon standards.

“The majority of the cloud world works on open source,” he said. “Anything that’s new gets thrown out into the ecosystem, they develop a community, the community develops back, and that’s what helps scale and harden those technologies.”

Traditional base station units, Gosain added, are essentially dumb antennas. Part of the idea with ORAN is to take some of the major advancements in networking technology, most notably under the umbrella of 5G, and move that intelligence out to the radio front-end.

It’s a win-win even for the equipment vendors, who profit from vertical integration but who, with open-source interfaces, can make their money back in other ways, according to Ashutosh Dutta, program chair of electrical and computer engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

“The vendor community, although they’re losing market on the hardware side, they’re gaining it in software,” he said. “I can still buy a piece of Nokia software and another piece from Ericsson and they’ll interoperate because they’re following an ORAN standard.”

ORAN, as a set of standards, is still very much a work in progress. There are three city-scale testing platforms extant in the U.S.—in Salt Lake City, West Harlem, NY, and Raleigh, N.C.—and further testing has taken place in the UK, mainland Europe and elsewhere.

“Companies are here because they see an opportunity,” said Gosain.

ORAN members include carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, BT, Vodafone, Orange and China Mobile. Hardware and software vendors that are members include Analog Devices, Arm, Broadcom, Ciena, Cisco, Dell, Ericsson, Fujutsu, IBM, Intel, Juniper, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Red Hat, Samsung and VMware.

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