O-RAN Alliance announces new members, but some big players remain on the sidelines

The O-RAN Alliance—founded earlier this year by AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange—today announced that seven other carriers have joined the group as members: Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, KT, Singtel, SK Telecom, Telefonica and Telstra. The news signals growing interest among the world’s major wireless network operators in technology that would pull apart some of the basic elements of a wireless network, thus allowing operators to mix and match products from different network equipment vendors.

"We are on a journey to transform the way that communications networks are built," said AT&T’s Andre Fuetsch, the newly elected chairman of the O-RAN Alliance, in a release from the group. "The O-RAN Alliance will drive intelligent, open software defined networks and virtualization elements that will help 5G networks achieve their full potential and unlock new experiences for consumers and businesses around the world."

Alongside the new members, the O-RAN Alliance also announced an initial set of seven working groups:

  • WG1: Use Cases & Overall Architecture
  • WG2: Radio Intelligent Controller (RIC) (non-Real Time) & A1 Interface
  • WG3: RIC (near-Real Time) & E2 Interface
  • WG4: Open Fronthaul (FH) Interface
  • WG5: Stack Reference Design and F1/V1/E1/X2
  • WG6: Cloudification and orchestration
  • WG7: White Box Hardware

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However, missing from the O-RAN Alliance ranks are major carriers such as Verizon and KDDI. That’s noteworthy considering Verizon, KDDI, Sprint and Jio are members of the related xRAN Forum.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that momentum is growing behind technology that would bring a “white box” approach to the construction of a wireless network. Such technology promises to use software and virtualization to disconnect the basic elements of a wireless network, like the radio from the baseband, thereby allowing operators to purchase radios from one vendor and basebands from another. The O-RAN Alliance, as well as the xRAN Forum and the Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP) OpenRAN Project Group, are all moving in this direction.

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Not surprisingly, this appears to be causing some concern among established vendors that have traditionally used proprietary connections among radios, basebands and other elements to make sure that carriers have to purchase their equipment in complete—and more expensive—packages. (Concurrently, smaller vendors see the move to disaggregated, virtualized and software-powered equipment as a way to break into the wireless equipment marketplace.)

Indeed, Aricent just today announced support for Intel’s related FlexRAN reference network architecture, while Nokia has announced some actions toward this kind of network design, as has Samsung. But Ericsson and Huawei have largely remained silent on the topic.

Nonetheless, momentum behind the software-powered, virtualized RAN continues. Just this week, Telefónica and Vodafone each issued Request for Information (RFI) documents for OpenRAN solutions. The RFIs will identify vendors of Radio Access Network equipment and assess their ability to meet requirements for RAN platforms as established by TIP's OpenRAN project group. The intention is to extend operators’ 4G network coverage, but 2G and 3G technologies are also included in the RFIs.