Dish, UScellular reflect on role of Ericsson, Nokia in open RAN

Considering that the push for open Radio Access Networks (RAN) was sparked in part to break up the stranglehold that Ericsson and Nokia held on the market, coupled with some disagreement between the two when it comes to open RAN standards, the question arises: Does the industry need these two titans to make open RAN work?

According to a handful of industry experts, the short answer is a resounding “yes.”

It’s a legitimate question, said Monica Paolini, founder and president of the consulting firm Senza Fili, on the sidelines of last week’s Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) Connect(X) trade show.

Certainly, some smaller vendors competing in the RAN space would welcome the dismissal of the titans. “Obviously if I were a small vendor, I’d say the same thing,” she said.

The RAN is changing. It’s becoming virtual, and that’s happening parallel with open RAN, although they don’t necessarily have to go together. “Right now, there’s a lot of polarization. Is it open RAN or not open RAN? But there’s a lot in between, and we’re going to see more of this ‘in between.’ Different operators can deploy what they need,” she said.

To the question of needing Nokia and Ericsson, “we’re going to need them just as much as before, but maybe a little bit less because there’s going to be more competition,” she said.

Dish dives in

Dish uses Nokia’s 5G standalone (SA) core software for its new U.S. 5G network; it does not use any Ericsson gear. Mavenir and Samsung are providing software to Dish; Fujitsu and Samsung are providing hardware. It works with other vendors as well.

As for whether the industry needs Ericsson and Nokia, “absolutely, we need them,” said Richard Leitao, SVP, National Development at Dish, during a panel entitled “Making Open RAN Work,” at the Connect(X) show. “They are very important. Let’s not forget these two companies have sustained development of the telecom operators for 40 years or even more. It is important that they buy in, for sure, and they bring a lot to the table.”

While Dish has a lot on its plate – Chairman Charlie Ergen acknowledged during the Q1 earnings call last week that Dish has a “narrow window” of opportunity to execute and address its capital structure – the company has an advantage in the open RAN technology space in the sense that it has no legacy equipment to worry about.

“Obviously, the speed of change for a traditional operator is different,” said Leitao, who worked at Nokia for about five years and Nortel for 10. “They have so many investments that they’ve done in the traditional network that they can’t just scrap everything. They need to start with small projects, distributed architectures where they are going to start learning about ORAN and they will gain more confidence.”

Some complain that open RAN is not moving fast enough. Leitao said the cycles of technology usually start with inflated expectations. It takes a while for people to settle down and he sees the industry now in the enlightenment stage. “But obviously, we need more players to create a stronger ecosystem,” he said.

UScellular in no hurry

USCellular Chief Technology Officer Mike Irizarry said UScellular wouldn’t be able to serve its customers without the partnership of Nokia and Ericsson.

“We’ve been working with them for years. They’ve been great partners,” he told Fierce. “I think they’re very strong partners, as is Samsung, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t continue to work with them in some shape or fashion.”

That said, the more vendors that compete in the ecosystem, the better because it allows for more robustness and diversity. Irizarry said he believes in open solutions, but he doesn’t believe that open RAN is ready for UScellular’s network. Pieces of it might be ready in the next 12 to 24 months, such as the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which is a critical piece of the whole open RAN disaggregation strategy.  

For infrastructure, UScellular’s biggest vendors are Ericsson and Nokia but it started to introduce Samsung in the millimeter wave space and it uses all three of them as suppliers for CBRS, he said.