Open RAN endures despite turbulence: analysts

AT&T last week announced changes in leadership, including the upcoming retirement of a long-time leader in the open Radio Access Network (RAN) space. Parallel Wireless cited the slow progression to open RAN as one of the reasons it had to lay off a significant part of its workforce in late June.

Could two very different developments – one at a behemoth telecom service provider and the other at a small vendor – indicate trouble in open RAN land?

Parallel certainly was founded well before the open RAN movement started, but it was a frequent and hearty cheerleader. AT&T was one of the founders of the Open RAN Alliance, which led the charge for choice in infrastructure rather than being locked into using equipment from dominant vendors like Ericsson and Nokia. The ability to mix and match, tied to an open source-driven approach, seems more desirable than the vendor lock-in that dominated the industry for so many years.

Analysts who spoke with Fierce last week said they don’t think the moves signal a great departure in the direction the wireless network business is headed.

“Taking into consideration that more than 80% of the top 20 wireless operators are exploring, deploying, or committing to this shift towards more openness, I am not overly concerned at this point that isolated events such as AT&T’s CTO leaving or Parallel Wireless announcing layoffs will derail the open RAN movement,” said Dell’Oro Group VP Stefan Pongratz.

What happened?

Last week, AT&T announced that Andre Fuetsch, EVP and CTO of Network Services, plans to retire from AT&T in September. Igal Elbaz will take over, leading the network technology and labs organizations, reporting to CTO Jeremy Legg. Apparently, the succession had been known internally for a number of weeks.

Fuetsch has been the chairman of the board of the O-RAN Alliance since its inception in 2018. Asked about Fuetsch’s future role on the board given his impending retirement at AT&T, an O-RAN Alliance spokesperson pointed to the O-RAN Constitution (PDF), which says directors also have to be an employee or otherwise affiliated with a member company.  

Neither AT&T nor the O-RAN Alliance commented specifically, but presumably, AT&T will appoint another executive to take over the role of Fuetsch at the O-RAN Alliance. Last December, Elbaz took over Fuetsch’s position as the chair of ATIS, the North American arm of the 3GPP standards organization. Fuetsch had served as chair of the ATIS board for the prior six years.

“As far as I know, AT&T continues to be committed to open RAN,” said wireless industry analyst Roger Entner, principal of Recon Analytics, who pointed to the role of Elbaz role at ATIS. “I would expect that Igal takes over from Andre to chair the Open RAN association. That would be my expectation.”

As for virtualization, AT&T was the first to do that and it’s part of the company's DNA; it’s not something it’s likely to reverse, he said.

What’s up with open RAN?

The O-RAN Alliance spokesperson added that O-RAN membership has been growing. It currently counts 345 companies and institutions as members.

Viavi Solutions, which offers network validation solutions, recently participated in a PlugFest organized by the O-RAN Alliance across multiple countries in May and June.

Asked about the status of open RAN given developments of the past week or so, Viavi’s Ian Wong, co-chair of the Testing and Integration Focus Group at the O-RAN Alliance, said open RAN is receiving a “huge amount” of engagement globally. The participation in working events such as the recent PlugFest was “large and convincing,” he said.

“Technically, there is a lot of progress being made in certification of equipment for conformance, performance and multi-vendor interoperability,” Wong said in a statement provided to Fierce. “The RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) function is maturing, bringing the potential to apply AI/ML techniques to network optimization and service management. So, while there is a lot of technical progress underway, every technology takes time to mature and not all companies will be on the same timeframe."

Industry analyst Monica Paolini, president of Senza Fili, echoed that theme, saying that open RAN is happening, but “it’s taking time, and that’s a good thing. It’s a big change.”

When 5G was initially developed, there were some performance issues. That was the case with earlier technologies like 3G and 4G as well, she said.

“It’s ready, but it’s not as mature as a technology that’s been around for 10 years” or more, she said.

“With open RAN, you give the opportunity to smaller vendors to come into the market,” she said. “You give operators the opportunity to have more vendors. With the opportunity to have more vendors, they can have smaller vendors. This is excellent, but that doesn’t mean all the small vendors are going to be taking a large enough share of the market for them to survive. For this kind of business, you do need to have volume.”