Middle East operators forge Open RAN pact

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Jul 15, 2021

  • Five Middle East operators are supporting and committing to Open RAN
  • Etisalat, stc, Zain, Mobily and du sign Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)
  • Another example of operators joining forces to accelerate innovation and supplier diversity

Five network operators in the Middle East have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that commits them to the support and deployment of Open RAN technology in their future infrastructure rollouts.

Etisalat Group, Saudi Telecom Company (stc), Zain Group, Mobily (the Saudi operator part-owned by Etisalat) and du (the brand name of Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, or EITC), say they will “deploy Open RAN across their footprint, providing an opportunity to traditional RAN vendors to adopt open interfaces, software and hardware to build more agile and flexible mobile networks in the 5G and 4G era, support new entrants with innovative solutions and achieve cost efficiencies in RAN deployments.”

The appeal to the “traditional RAN vendors” is notable, and suggests that, like many other operators, the key driver of Open RAN adoption is to migrate away from proprietary system lock-in rather than dump their incumbent vendors (though the latter is much more likely to happen unless they offer Open RAN systems as technical options in the coming years). 

The move reflects the operator collaboration and MoU-based agreement of five major European operators, namely Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone, which set out their stall at the start of the year (TIM joins its peers shortly after the initial announcement in January) and which have since published a white paper outlining their technical requirements for the open, disaggregated radio access network products they want to deploy in significant deployments starting next year, and then issued a detailed spreadsheet document that provides a “comprehensive list of technical requirements that the signatories of the Open RAN MoU consider priorities for Open RAN architecture.” (See Open RAN MoU operators publish their tech wish list.)

There are no such documents as yet from the Middle East Open RAN collective (MEORC?), just some supportive commentary in their joint announcement.

“Driving innovation and Open RAN deployment is the shared responsibility of every telco operator,” according to Saleem AlBlooshi, Chief Technology Officer at du. “At du, we are committed to working with our regional counterparts, which will enable us to create further value by increasing infrastructure flexibility and efficiency while accelerating technology adaption and network expansion across the UAE.”

While Hatem Bamatraf, Chief Technology Officer at the Etisalat Group, noted: “This is an extraordinary opportunity for the Middle East operators to come together to promote the development of an open technology that will help to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of our networks. I am excited about this partnership that will foster a diverse and secure 4G/5G ecosystem based on Open RAN solutions. This is also a testimony to Etisalat’s commitment and leadership in innovation in the ICT sector and to development and adoption of Open RAN ensuring the best network experience for our customers.”

Unlike other regional Open RAN initiatives (think Europe, US, India), there is no mention (yet) of any effort to foster the development of a local Open RAN technology developer ecosystem. 

But these operators are not starting from scratch. 

For example, Etisalat followed its recent collaboration with Rakuten Mobile by announcing plans to deploy an Open RAN network in Afghanistan in partnership with Parallel Wireless, Intel and Supermicro. (See Dish, Etisalat advance Open RAN plans.)

Meanwhile, stc teamed up with Altiostar and its in-house integrator, stc Solutions, for a live test of Open RAN technologyearlier this year.   

And Zain teamed up with Parallel Wireless as long ago as 2019. 

Meanwhile, was there ever a more appropriate operator name for an Open RAN deployment than du? (I’m here all week, folks…)

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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