Nokia takes 5G cloud RAN live, works to convert vRAN skeptics

Nokia this week boasted what the vendor said is the world’s first commercially deployed cloud-based 5G radio access network (RAN), which went live in North America.

Among major global RAN vendors, Nokia has been at the forefront of advocating for virtual RANs for some time, said Global Data principal analyst Ed Gubbins in comments emailed to FierceWireless. Gubbins noted Nokia’s vRAN position forms a sharp contrast to others, specifically Huawei, which has publicly questioned the value proposition for vRAN.

“There’s still a lot of skepticism surrounding vRAN among operators globally,” Gubbins said. “Nokia has its work cut out for it in terms of convincing operators to embrace this concept.”

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Earlier this year speaking at MWC 2019 in Barcelona, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the RAN has become increasingly complex in the past several years, making it particularly challenging to disaggregate hardware from software in the RAN to achieve virtualization.

While Gubbins didn’t have specific information about Nokia’s newly announced 5G cloud RAN deployment, he indicated additional similar moves could help the Finnish vendor in its efforts to get operators on board with vRAN.

“The more Nokia can tout real-world operator activity like this – plus its trials with Orange last year, and even its participation in the Rakuten vRAN network in Japan – the more it may persuade operators and then benefit from the credibility it’s earned in this area,” Gubbins said.

In a blog post sharing the announcement, Mark Atkinson, head of the 5G & Small Cells Business Unit within Nokia Mobile Networks Business Group, attributed the 5G milestone to the Nokia’s cloud base station, “which splits traffic to ensure each connection gets the service it needs.”

Nokia’s AirScale distributed units process time-critical functions at the cell site close to the radios, connected by Ethernet fronthaul, while non-real-time functions are performed fully virtualized by the centralized control unit in a centralized data center, Atkinson described.  

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“This flexible mix of local and cloud-based processing a real game changer,” wrote Atkinson, noting Nokia’s cloud RAN offering supports centralized and distributed deployments that run Virtualized Network Functions (VNFs).

“This means that we can combine performance, scalability and efficiency at its best – in the radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU),” wrote Atkinson.

While Atkinson’s post only said the deployment took place in “one of the busiest cities” in the United States, a Tweet from an official Nokia account later in the week indicated advantages of the commercial cloud-based 5G RAN were showcased in Dallas at a Verizon Enterprise event:

Gubbins noted that Nokia’s efforts in the vRAN space have given the company a level of thought leadership on the topic among major RAN vendors, and said smaller vRAN vendors like Altiostar and Mavenir also have a lot of credibility.

Earlier this year, analyst Iain Gillott, founder of iGR Research, told FierceWireless he believes there will be scenarios where multiple vRAN vendors coordinate, with smaller firms providing software solutions and larger players like Nokia and Ericsson providing network integration and management.