Analysts: Mavenir, Xilinx mMIMO Hardware Opens Up OpenRAN Possibilities

April 21, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer

Massive MIMO (mMIMO) is widely considered critical to the deployment of 5G. According to analysts, telecom software provider Mavenir and hardware manufacturer Xilinx partnering to release OpenRAN mMIMO hardware only bodes well for the vendor-neutral technology movement.

The 64TRx (64 transmit, 64 receive) units with C-band-spectrum support are expected to be released by Q4 2021. Still, Ed Gubbins, Principal Analyst at GlobalData, told 6GWorldTM that operators are likely to have been waiting for this combination of hardware. He called the announcement significant.

“There’s a reason massive MIMO radios weren’t the first OpenRAN radios. It took some doing, some engineering to achieve this, but it’s really important for 5G. The fact that we’re seeing OpenRAN massive MIMO units coming is a good sign that the OpenRAN ecosystem is progressing,” he said, pointing to how mMIMO tends to put extra requirements on the fronthaul link, which is at the heart of OpenRAN radios.

OpenRAN Revisited

OpenRAN promotes compatibility between radio access network (RAN) components from different vendors. The intended result is greater competition in the sector as well as cost-effectiveness and flexibility in preventing vendor lock-in. However, Dell’Oro Group Industry Analyst Stefan Pongratz said in a separate interview that using components from multiple suppliers can get complicated, especially with mMIMO.

“When you have one solution for roll-out services, one solution for integration, one supplier for the radio, the challenge for massive MIMO is that there’s information that needs to go back and forth between the radio and the [distribution unit; DU],” he said. “With 64TR there’s a lot of data going back… Each vendor has to coordinate with the other vendor. The DU has to tell the radio what to do… It looks like they’ve figured it out.”

Pongratz noted there were a few mMIMO OpenRAN solutions available already, including from NEC. So he wouldn’t call the Mavenir-Xilinx announcement a breakthrough, but rather a sign of an increasing number of solutions to come, which is a good thing for operators.

“I think it goes without saying operators don’t have that many options when it comes to massive MIMO. So a new massive MIMO solution, regardless of if we’re talking about open RAN or proprietary RAN, will be appreciated,” he said. “It’s a significant step forward in general for the operators to have more options as well as for the overall OpenRAN movement, because it has been viewed as a significant technical challenge.”

Gubbins similarly spoke about the lack of equipment options, at least up until now. Asked about how bullish he is on OpenRAN in general, he viewed it as a definite factor.

“It’s a narrow vendor landscape and then some of these vendors are barred from certain markets, like Huawei and ZTE in the U.S. Samsung doesn’t choose to market themselves that way in every geography on the planet. So that’s another way it’s narrower,” he said. “These radio access networks are so important to the world’s operators, but they don’t have a really broad landscape of vendors to choose from.

“There are really important forces driving OpenRAN and you’ve definitely seen the ecosystem growing. You’ve seen like with this Mavenir announcement, chip vendors get interested… Really, the range of players that are getting involved and investing in this space has ramped up pretty significantly in recent years. I think you can definitely see momentum.”

Mavenir Making Good on mMIMO Promise

The Mavenir-Xilinx announcement is the culmination of several months of reports that Mavenir had been working on developing hardware. A Mavenir mMIMO unit was noted to be in development late 2020.

Back in November 2020, Mavenir Senior Vice-President of Business Development John Baker spoke to 6GWorld regarding a general consensus that OpenRAN was primarily seen as a rural solution due in part to a perceived lack of mMIMO compatibility. Baker was quick to note the hardware was on its way. However, in his interview with 6GWorld Pongratz, discussing Dell’Oro Group’s OpenRAN forecast, said it might stay in rural areas for a while.

“Massive MIMO typically started out in the more urban areas with the more profitable sites. I do believe that operators will be a little bit more cautious and methodical when it comes to evaluating overall business factors for those sites as opposed to using some of the rural sites,” he said.

Gubbins concluded by saying it will realistically take time for operators to get comfortable deploying OpenRAN in real-world scenarios. Gubbins said that skepticism might extend to OpenRAN mMIMO hardware, at least temporarily.

“Are operators likely to start OpenRAN deployments with massive MIMO?,” he asked. “Maybe they might start with something a little bit simpler, a little bit more low-risk, but in the long run operators that are interested in OpenRAN are going to take a look at OpenRAN and massive MIMO just because massive MIMO is so important for 5G. There may be some difference between what happens in the near term or medium term and what happens in the long term.”

Feature image courtesy of Jake Mcneill (via Shutterstock). 

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