Prior to yesterday, all the open RAN news was in Europe

The wireless industry is reeling from the announcement by AT&T yesterday that it agreed to a multi-year collaboration with Ericsson, in a major blow for Nokia.

Ericsson hasn’t always been a big open RAN proponent, in part because it was designed to lessen operators’ reliance on the biggest infrastructure players and get more competition into the mix. For some time, Nokia appeared quicker to get behind the concept. But according to wireless analyst Earl Lum, president of EJL Wireless Research, Nokia hasn’t been delivering the goods.

As you’d expect, Nokia begs to disagree. In a statement following the AT&T announcement, the Finland-based vendor said it is fully committed to open RAN and pointed to a recent contract win from Japan’s NTT DoCoMo.

Nokia is also cited as one of three market leaders in ABI Research’s recent competitive assessment of open RAN vendors. According to the report, Nokia was ranked third for its overall contributions to the O-RAN Alliance Work Groups, R&D investments “and its active involvement in recent integration and testing developments with all major hyperscalers, cloud providers and operators.”

Mavenir was ranked as overall leader, with Japan’s NEC coming second. Fujitsu, Samsung, Ericsson, Rakuten Symphony and Parallel Wireless were also evaluated and ranked as “mainstream”, in that order.

Just before the AT&T news dropped, Fierce Wireless asked Saqlain Ali, senior analyst at ABI Research and the writer of the firm’s competitive assessment of open RAN vendors, for his views on how open RAN is shaping up in the European market.

In a somewhat prescient comment, Ali noted that although a late starter, Ericsson’s open RAN ecosystem “has started to gain momentum” with recent announcements related to O-RAN compliant radios, and partnerships with other chipset and mobile vendors. “Ericsson still has some ground to cover, but its recent announcements are very positive,” Ali added. 

The AT&T deal can certainly be described as an extremely positive open RAN development for Ericsson.

Small steps

According to Ali, India, Europe and North America are expected to lead the open RAN market as the sector continues to evolve in 2024. He pointed to some small-scale deployments in Europe by Deutsche Telekom (DT), Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone, followed by open RAN deployments by Dish Wireless and Verizon in the United States.

In his assessment, open RAN is gaining momentum in Europe with multiple contracts between operators and vendors, including commercial open RAN deployments in Italy (Vodafone and Nokia), the UK (Virgin Media O2 and Mavenir), France (Orange with NEC and Mavenir), Bulgaria (Vivacom with Parallel Wireless) and Germany (DT and Mavenir).

He particularly highlights certain trials in Europe, including:

  • A pilot in Romania, where Samsung, Vodafone and Orange have tested 4G calls over shared commercial networks in rural areas based on open RAN; 
  • A trial in Spain, where Mavenir, Orange, HPE, Dell and Casa Systems tested a 5G standalone (SA) data connection with open RAN;
  • A trial in Finland, where Nokia and Elisa completed a cloud RAN trial powered by In-Line acceleration.

“As far as we are aware, operators are not slowing down their progress with open RAN. There is some discussion regarding a new open front-haul interface for Massive MIMO open RAN, but we do not expect this to affect deployment decisions. In fact, we expect these specifications to be updated early next year,” Ali said.

His expectations for 2024 are that the O-RAN Alliance finalizes the interface for Massive MIMO Uplink performance improvement (ULPI); that the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) is introduced on a small scale by the end of the year; and that chipsets will mature, “so we do expect the entry for new vendors into the space will become easier.”

“The supply chain will continue to diversify giving operators more choice, lower costs for equipment and a bigger ecosystem in the coming years,” Ali said. 

In his competitive assessment of vendors for ABI, Ali observed that the industry has witnessed several announcements relating to the open RAN field in terms of trials, testing and certifications during 2023. 

“Open RAN vendors such as Mavenir, NEC, and Fujitsu are leading the current open RAN deployments, and incumbent vendors, including Ericsson and Nokia, have started to join forces with chipset and other mobile vendors to expand their open RAN ecosystem. However, mobile vendors are expected to face fierce competition in the next couple of years,” Ali said.