AT&T can fine tune network with open RAN – Elbaz

AT&T’s Igal Elbaz on Friday talked up benefits of open RAN including the ability to fine tune the network.

One of the five founding members of the O-RAN Alliance, AT&T has been vocal about plans to implement architecture with open interfaces as specifications mature. Elbaz reiterated that stance during the UBS Future of 5G event.

“AT&T will deploy O-RAN based architecture over time,” said Elbaz, SVP of Wireless and Access Technology at AT&T, at the virtual event. “And as it becomes available and mature, we have all intentions to take advantage of that architecture.”

In an April FCC filing, the carrier said it expects to incorporate O-RAN compliant equipment within the next year.

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While the major carriers all use a mix of traditional big players including Ericsson and Nokia (with Samsung grabbing ground on 5G), Elbaz noted each operator has different spectrum holdings, device mix and customer requirements. And with O-RAN architecture comes a lot of operational efficiency, he said.

“Our ability to fine tune our systems to the tune of our customers is fairly limited when you have fully closed integrated systems,” he said. “The the fact that we are going to be open will allow us to fine tune the network with additional machine learning and AI to serve customers better.”

AT&T has also been working within the O-RAN community on a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which helps automate and control parts of the radio network quickly with the ability to integrate external third-party applications from different vendors.

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Talking about open RAN benefits, Elbaz cited the example of lowering the barrier to entry for additional and new vendors. Thanks to open interfaces, new or smaller players can focus on and innovate for specific subcomponents of a wireless system that can then integrate within a wider network setup instead of needing to build a fully integrated system, he said. That compares to closed systems traditionally from the limited number of big vendors

With open interfaces, it “allows much easier connection between different paths of the wireless system,” Elbaz said, noting that helps on the capital side for costs. When it comes to operations, many carriers are using more than one vendor in various levels of the network, he said. And each brings its own management system.

“If we can now use the openness and the open interfaces and new specification to allow us to have even a cloud-based management system” no matter how many vendors an operator has, they can be unified into one.  

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One competitor, namely T-Mobile, is decidedly less excited – although still interested – in open RAN. On Friday T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray said the ecosystem needs to develop and the operator has to be patient.

Elbaz noted that with a brownfield build, by design O-RAN architecture is going to have “a good deal of variability between the incumbent” and new venders and that various aspects mature at different times. “And each one of us can decide which part of this you want to adopt,” he said.

It’s also not AT&T’s first time shifting to a new generation of technology.

“We moved from 1G to 2G…and now to 5G,” Elbaz said. “So we know how to introduce new capabilities and new technologies into the network,” Elbaz said.  

AT&T is also focused on a converged network build utilizing fiber to support mobility and fixed services, including 5G, for consumer and business customers along the same route with a “hybrid fixed and wireless network.