Nokia VP: Open RAN not a ‘binary choice’

Some might question why Nokia, as one of the major traditional telecom suppliers, recently joined the OpenRAN Policy Coalition. Executives, however, say it makes perfect sense and there’s more to be gained working collaboratively alongside newer players to move the needle on shared basic policy objectives like the need for R&D funding and support to compete against the likes of Huawei.

Nokia’s involvement in open radio access network (RAN) efforts isn’t new. It was the first major vendor to join the O-RAN Alliance, which is focused on developing standards for open networks, and it was a founding member of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). It’s worked with Altiostar and Rakuten on the mobile operator's fully virtualized greenfield build 4G LTE network in Japan.

The policy coalition formed in early May with 31 members, including U.S. operators Verizon and AT&T, international players, and newer but familiar open RAN players like Mavenir, Altiostar, and Parallel Wireless. Part of Nokia’s role in the coalition, according to Brian Hendricks, VP of Government Relations Americas Nokia, is to clear up confusion for policy makers so that shared goals don’t fail to gain traction from lawmakers unwilling to take sides in what appeared to be turning into somewhat of a legacy-versus-future choice for telecom policy.

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That tied into confusion from a lack of clear-cut definitions, as Hendricks explained. For example, there can be virtualized networks that are still proprietary, virtualized networks that are open, or solutions that have open interfaces but proprietary hardware.  

Traditional RAN architectures, where Nokia sits, use proprietary hardware and interfaces, whereas virtualization is tied to open interfaces and vendor-neutral hardware and software – but Nokia thinks broader policy doesn’t have to follow an either/or scenario.

“We don’t see this movement [open RAN] as a binary choice between doing short-term things to support your existing suppliers and betting on an entirely new generation of technology players,” said Hendricks, explaining Nokia’s advocacy efforts to the U.S. administration and Congress over the last several months prior to joining the coalition.

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In this way, Nokia thinks joining the group is valuable to both move its own agenda forward and for other members to provide a unified front.

“We can get in and have this unified ecosystem around key principles. We think it will actually help policy makers feel more comfortable moving forward on concrete proposals without feeling like they’re picking sides,” he said.

As mentioned, one of those principles laid out by the coalition is government support for R&D investment and vendor diversity.  

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The RAN market is dominated by Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, with Samsung to a lesser degree working to make inroads in certain markets. While a desire for vendor diversity isn’t necessarily new among operators, open RAN started garnering increased government interest lately, in part to compete with and find alternative solutions to China’s Huawei.

The U.S. has taken action at home and campaigned for allies abroad to exclude Huawei from telecom networks on a national security basis (claims Huawei has continuously denied.) Congress has already passed legislation requiring carriers, mainly smaller and rural, to rip out and replace existing Huawei gear in the U.S. Earlier this year a group of bipartisan senators introduced legislation that would provide over $1 billion to invest in alternatives to Huawei and ZTE and direct FCC funds specifically for O-RAN R&D.

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Still, Nokia’s decision to join the coalition isn’t all O-RAN focused. Hendricks said Nokia doesn’t think R&D support should be strictly O-RAN based, noting that the coalition doesn’t favor mandates on buying a particular technology. It is in part about bringing the Finnish vendor’s voice about the importance of supporting existing suppliers across the ecosystem “in dealing globally with a very aggressive competitor, backed by a government and policies that make it extremely difficult to win and maintain customer and grow scale,” Hendricks said, referring to Huawei.

“We see China is heavily subsidizing research at the start of the 6G R&D cycle and we think it’s important that everyone can collectively look at opportunities to support foundational 6G research,” Hendricks added, noting that some of that will feed into O-RAN, while some will not.

Nokia wants to ensure the U.S. approach doesn’t place everything on “future orientation and ignore some opportunities in the short-run” that could help companies including American players, compete.

In terms of the coalition being another way to cut out Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE, Mavenir SVP John Baker told FierceWireless that from a vendor-based perspective, the coalition is all about getting more specifications open in order to widen the supply chain. Those rules, he said, could arguably apply to both Huawei and ZTE as they have Nokia and Ericsson, stressing that ecosystem innovation and pricing has been impacted as the number of vendors consolidated over time.

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Ericsson for its part is not a member of the Open RAN Policy Coalition. In a statement emailed to Fierce, Ericsson said it believes in openness and that product architectures need to evolve to support open interfaces, but that “this evolution needs to be based on open standards and the strong foundation build by 3GPP,” adding 3GPP has led to a highly competitive and consolidated RAN market, similar to that of chipsets and devices.

Still, Ericsson is clearly not jumping on board to push policy for open RAN.

“We believe in open and fair competition. To stay ahead in the 5G race the U.S. and other governments should maintain its market-based approach through technology-agnostic policies. The focus of policy makers needs to be on speeding up 5G deployment through spectrum allocation and removing network deployment barriers,” stated Ericsson. “Ericsson is committed to work with all relevant players and alliances in the industry to innovate at global scale for the benefit of the whole industry.”

Nokia, while more aggressive and vocal on open interfaces, also doesn’t think open RAN is necessarily what will drive business.

“At the end of the day, saying you’re open doesn’t guarantee you business,” Hendricks said. “You’re still going to have to deliver highly reliable, secure, high performing solutions and that will be the basis on which people are chosen whether it’s the status quo or with a system with an accelerated open timeline.”