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.\n\n5G resources\n\nWhat is 5G? Fast wireless technology for enterprises and phones\nHow 5G frequency affects range and speed\nPrivate 5G can solve some problems that Wi-Fi can\u2019t\nPrivate 5G keeps Whirlpool driverless vehicles rolling\n5G can make for cost-effective private backhaul\nCBRS can bring private 5G to enterprises\n\n\nThe O-RAN (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.\nCurrent 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\u2019s gear at some part of the stack for cost or capability reasons might be locked into its primary vendor.\nO-RAN 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.\n\nIvan Seskar, associate director at Rutgers University\u2019s experimental systems and prototyping office, WINLAB, said that 5G, in fact, is what\u2019s driving the move toward increased openness in the world of licensed wireless equipment.\n\u201cHardware\u2019s less and less important because more and more functions are implemented in software,\u201d he said. \u201cOnce you have that, you\u2019re trying to make sure that this software is somewhat standardized. If you really look at the technological drivers, it\u2019s the need for customized deployments of communications systems.\u201d\nA 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\u2019s equipment vendor to figure out how to enable it, according to Seskar. But frequency slicing is an O-RAN standard. So, if it were available at the software level, and the network provider was using O-RAN-compliant equipment, the capability could be quickly added on the fly.\n\u201cIf it\u2019s 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,\u201d said Seskar.\nThe 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.\n\u201cThe majority of the cloud world works on open source,\u201d he said. \u201cAnything that\u2019s new gets thrown out into the ecosystem, they develop a community, the community develops back, and that\u2019s what helps scale and harden those technologies.\u201d\nTraditional base station units, Gosain added, are essentially dumb antennas. Part of the idea with O-RAN 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.\nIt\u2019s 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.\n\u201cThe vendor community, although they\u2019re losing market on the hardware side, they\u2019re gaining it in software,\u201d he said. \u201cI can still buy a piece of Nokia software and another piece from Ericsson and they\u2019ll interoperate because they\u2019re following an O-RAN standard.\u201d\nO-RAN, 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.\u2014in Salt Lake City, West Harlem, NY, and Raleigh, N.C.\u2014and further testing has taken place in the UK, mainland Europe and elsewhere.\n\u201cCompanies are here because they see an opportunity,\u201d said Gosain.\nO-RAN 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.