The Trouble With Scaling O-RAN & TIP Innovation

November 2, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

Enterprise services are a focus in both 5G and 6G. A diversity of different requirements and scenarios have driven 5G’s different flavours and will do so further in 6G. However, a major challenge lies in being able to deliver end-to-end quality of service guarantees, particularly where services travel across more than one operator network. 5G’s network slicing is one potential solution, while edge services could assist with latency and reliability guarantees to support local processing.

However, much of this relies on the existence of software-based, interoperable and disaggregated networks. Last week’s Fyuz 2022 event, a collaboration between industry organisations TIP and O-RAN Alliance, was a good place to catch up on the runaway successes of this essential technology.

In fairness, while there was a good deal of enthusiasm from a community that seems to have grown in confidence in the last few years, the messages were mixed.

Take, for example, the keynote speech from Yago Tenorio, TIP’s Chairman and Vodafone’s Network Architecture Director and Alex Choi, Chair of the O-RAN Alliance. While announcing the good news that ETSI has accepted O-RAN specifications for standardisation, Tenorio emphasised that by 2030, 30% of Vodafone’s European network would be Open RAN.

Consider that; perhaps the most bullish OpenRAN advocate expects largely not to be using it by the time 6G in theory may be reaching commercial realisation. Meanwhile Telefonica’s O-RAN Alliance board member Maite Aparicio was able to point to a deployment of Open RAN in its Internet Para Todos collaboration in Peru; elsewhere, however, there are many trials but few deployments of any scale.

If Open RAN, and other open network elements, are the wave of the future then acceleration needs to take place. How might that be accomplished?

Business Motivations & Business Models

While early discussions of 6G have been striking for the insistent focus on the development of new business models and revenue streams as part of the ideation process, as highlighted in this article, similar conversations were notably absent from much of the Fyuz event.

Open networks were greeted as an opportunity to have a more flexible supply chain and to more easily share infrastructure. Intel’s Cristina Rodrigues pointed out that business cases need to be more effectively made based on Total Cost of Ownership savings based on automation. Troubleshooting and problem-solving, device management and more will be simplified. 

While important, these are arguments based on cost efficiency – very welcome, but not a motivating factor for business change in the same ways as opening up new lines of revenue.

The argument for cost saving is not that straightforward, either. Mohan Aravamudhan, Capgemini Engineering’s VP for Digital System Integration, pointed out that for an operator the deployment of open networks goes hand in hand with operational process and business transformation. Fresh skills, perspectives and processes cost money and time to deploy, eating into any TCO savings.

Procurement

Aurelio Nocerino, Europe Telco Network Practice Lead with Accenture, was one of the first to highlight structural challenges in the existing telecoms procurement model, which is typically to find a single commercial partner who can provide a solution to a set challenge, acting as a ‘single neck to strangle’ in case of difficulties. As Keysight’s Kalyan Sunhar put it, “You’d rather buy a car from a dealer than buy all the parts and put them together yourself.”

The challenge with this procurement model is that it undermines the concept of openness and flexibility within the Open RAN (and more generally open network) ecosystem. No single supplier or operator can afford the testing and integration effort, so it needs to be distributed across the ecosystem – more on that shortly.

Meanwhile Femi Adeyemi, Fujitsu’s Head of Wireless pointed out that, while procurement is taking place, it’s ‘fragmented’ with requirements differing from operator to operator. Aggregating common requirements across different operators would greatly assist in scaling demand.

This is, in fact, something which NTT Group is working on. On stage Sadayuki Abeta, DoCoMo’s Global Head of Open RAN Solutions, announced NTT would be working with Vodafone on common requirements. While useful to have two influential operators doing this, more is needed in this regard. NTT has also opened up its OREN offering to smaller operators, enabling them to test a number of different configurations of Open RAN stacks from different vendors in NTT’s labs; officially four configurations, but 6GWorld understands more are possible. 

Validation and Testbeds

While Open RAN is creating immense buzz, one reason for delays lies in the management and testing of interoperability. One vendor on the showfloor commented that O-RAN compliance currently means being able to meet specifications within one’s own offering, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that interoperability is guaranteed.

Indeed, Kristian Toivo, TIP’s Executive Director, referred to this during his keynote speech, noting that “We’re still looking for the right way to integrate and validate… We do system validation by every operator from scratch.”

TIP has an ambitious roadmap to change this, having launched last week their TIP Testing and Validation Framework. This includes a badging program to assure operators that particular products, combinations, or solutions, whether from a single or multiple vendors, are ready for deployment. Anything Gold-level certified would be “almost plug-and-play” according to Toivo.  

If successful, this should have an impact in accelerating time to market and reducing integration costs – Tenorio described it as “Looking to fill the void of system integration in the industry.”

This should be good news, especially for accelerating open network deployments in greenfield networks such as enterprises. However, much will depend on the pace of testing and validation.

Accelerating Change?

There are certainly reasons to be optimistic about the efforts of TIP and the O-RAN Alliance. While there certainly was some frustration audible last week at the pace of progress, there is scope to accelerate this over the coming years.

Ultimately, though, the argument to “Invest $x to save $y” is a different kind of calculation from “Invest $x to create new business lines.”

Vodafone’s Head of New Business in Spain, Marta de Pablos Alvaro, pointed out this challenge in a discussion around the metaverse and the possible operator role.

While highlighting the potential roles for operators in managing identities, wallets, passwords, and API exposure to provide the right capabilities for different metaverse environments and scenarios, “Telcos also need to learn how to monetise in order to deploy.”

Cayetano Carbajo, Telefonica’s Director for Core, Transport and Service Platforms, was if anything even more assertive about the need to change operator processes, structures and skills.

“Even if the metaverse isn’t coming, this is needed,” he observed. “The best-effort network is not helping us any more.”

In particular, Carbajo underlined the need for automation and intelligence to support next generation services with deterministic levels of service, but backed up with the right business models and approaches.

“Network APIs will negotiate with the applications for the capabilities needed,” he pointed out. This would, though, need to be a two-way negotiation, and therein lies an opportunity for negotiating a share of revenue as well, as there will inevitably be constrained resources – as Carbajo pointed out, “I cannot imagine providing one Gig and one millisecond latency for all our customers at the same time.

This learning process will, itself, take time; not just in the identification of opportunities from different sources but in taking advantage of them through new sales and customer engagement processes – being able to sell digital transformation to enterprises, for example, rather than devices and capacity. It will also require linking network capabilities and data to fulfilment, management and billing capabilities in new ways.

All of this is costly, time consuming and needs new behaviours across the business. 6GSymposium speakers and delegates were correct to pay attention to new business opportunities as a key part of the proposition for future networks; however, there is a strong argument for joining those long-term conversations and aims to current discussions around business and technology change.

While cost savings may be helpful in the short term, the financial and business leaders building networks need to be excited and clear about their ability to build new businesses from their investments in order to create drastic change.

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