For Cellcom, open RAN is not a slam dunk

Nsight’s Cellcom is a company that had early interest in open RAN, announcing a deal in 2018 with Parallel Wireless to test out its solution. However, the approach isn’t a perfect fit in a brownfield environment, according to CTO and VP of Engineering Rick Brooks.

“I’ll be honest, we struggle with open RAN,” he said, because much of what Cellcom is doing currently is network densification to add sites for more capacity or better experience.

Cellcom recently started to roll out 5G service in parts of Wisconsin, including Green Bay

“The application is really strong in a greenfield scenario,” Brooks said. The company is working on some proof of concepts with other radio vendors this year, but the challenge is to make it work in a brownfield setup.

If Cellcom wanted to add a cluster of 5-7 sites, open RAN might be a good option But for adding a single site here or there, Brooks said it doesn’t work as well because there needs to be boundaries between two vendors to allow for handoffs.

RELATED: Parallel Wireless scores Open RAN deal with Cellcom

“If you look at Brown County, where in Green Bay here we have 60 some sites, now if you’re going to add a site in the middle there, it doesn’t really make sense from an open RAN perspective because all of the neighbors are the other vendor,” he commented.  Cellcom has challenged the vendors it works with to come and tell the company how open RAN will work. He said a lot of times the solution is to pick a county where New Radio (NR) radios haven’t been upgraded yet “but again it doesn’t make sense for just one off or two sites here and there.”

It's not a matter of being too complex, he said, “it’s just how do we make it work without disturbing the experience our customers have.”

Tech incubator and enterprise

Nsight isn’t one to shy away from innovation, with a more than 100-year history.  Right now, it’s focused on getting service to small communities and rural areas, but CEO Brighid Riordan said Wisconsin and the Green Bay area is ripe for tech innovation that paves the way for partnerships.

“People don’t always think of us as a hotspot for innovation in the country, but we are becoming that and so there are some really interesting partnerships that we’re exploring with telecom tech,” she said.

She pointed out that Green Bay is an NFL city, where Microsoft also has a presence.

“The startup environment is really starting to pick up here so we think there are a lot of interesting partnerships that we can build off of there with millimeter wave or other technologies,” she said.

RELATED: Nsight execs detail Cellcom’s 5G rollout

She said learning is still taking place in the realm of mmWave and IoT, but noted a large manufacturing, agriculture and education presence in the area, with the aim of working to customize millimeter wave and technologies to help businesses become faster, more efficient and capable.

She agreed enterprises are a main focus going forward, and Riordan said she’s looking not just through a B2B lens but a business to village or business to town model. 

“We’re making agreements with entire towns to provide fiber to the home, which also allows to expand and enhance what we can do with mobile services there too” with smart city applications. And it’s not just the big cities, but small communicates like Pulaski, Wisconsin, which Riordan noted is her hometown and a village of about 3,000 people, who now have 5G.

“We have a small network footprint compared to others, but that means we really want to get into those rural areas,” she said.

Cellcom doesn’t have a date for when 5G will extend to its entire footprint, but Brooks thinks the carrier will absolutely get there.

“Right now the focus is the smaller villages and communities that don’t have it today, how do we deliver it there,” noting places like highway routes might not see 5G.

In the coming months Cellcom plans to launch 5G at more sites in Brown, Door, Kewanuee, Manitowoc and Shawano counties.