NEC pounced on the open RAN opportunity after Huawei's troubles

According to analyst Stefan Pongratz, vice president with The Dell’Oro Group, the top open RAN vendors are Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC. That’s pretty interesting considering that open RAN was supposed to open the door for dozens of startups to enter the telecommunications space. But none of these top three companies are startups.

Perhaps even more interesting is that Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC are all Asian companies.

NEC, a conglomerate based in Japan, has been in business for about 100 years. David Cohen, director of marketing for 5G solutions at NEC Corporation of America, said, “Up until 5G, our wireless business was 100% Japanese.” Of its entrée into open RAN he said, “We kind of think of ourselves as the world’s best-funded startup.”

Cohen noted that the open RAN movement coincided with Huawei’s political troubles in the U.S. With the void left by Huawei and the desire for more vendors in the telecom space, NEC saw an opportunity to globalize its business. It started in Japan, helping NTT Docomo build the first open RAN network, and then it began working with Rakuten.

Perhaps its fellow Asian vendors — Samsung and Fujitsu — also pounced on the void left by Huawei in the early days of open RAN.

Now, NEC is doing different open RAN projects for Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Orange, Telefonica and Germany’s 1&1.

“If you think about who’s deploying open RAN, pretty much every operator who’s working with open RAN is working with NEC,” said Cohen. (Although NEC is not a vendor for Dish Wireless.)

“It’s not a coincidence about Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC,” said Cohen. “Operators were looking for more choice, and we have the global reach.”

Since Dish and Rakuten are the only major greenfield deployments, NEC is obviously doing a lot of its work for brownfield networks. “We’re building greenfield islands within brownfields,” said Cohen. The greenfield islands give operators a chance to trial the technology and explore how they’re ultimately going to be deploying open RAN throughout their networks.

Struggles for open RAN

A few months ago, Parallel Wireless laid off quite a few of its employees. Asked what NEC concludes from that, Cohen said, “We think that the fewer vendors that are focused on open RAN, the worse off we are. We need folks who are pushing open RAN and are open to partnerships and collaboration.” He said startups may have gotten into open RAN thinking that the technology would ramp faster and be more lucrative right way. “NEC has taken a more pragmatic view," he said. "This is an enormous step change. It’s a cultural difference. Once we get to near-real-time RICs in the RAN and they’re able to deploy apps, they’re going to be in a situation where they’re paying vendors in a new model. We’re taking a very patient approach.”

vRAN vs. open RAN

At MWC Americas last week, NEC introduced its virtualized RAN (vRAN) software suite to the international market. NEC's vCU/vDU software guarantees seamless migration from 4G to 5G and beyond. It also ensures standards-based interfaces for integration with open RAN radio units and other components of the multi-vendor ecosystem.

Some analysts have suggested that operators must virtualize their networks as a stepping-stone to open RAN.

Patrick Lopez, NEC’s vice president of product management for 5G, said a lot of the business case for 5G is not for consumers; it’s for enterprises that will demand thousands of 5G slices. “You’re not going to be able to manage networks manually,” said Lopez. “You have to have cloud and virtualized infrastructure. I think vRAN is the transition that the traditional vendors are making toward having a network that is manageable.”

Lopez said that network virtualization started with the NFV trend several years ago. Now, it’s in the second phase with containerized architecture. “5G is more like a cloud network than a telecom network, and you have to get on with it. Having islands of greenfield cloud-native deployments is a lot easier to introduce and manage.”