O-RAN makes MENA debut courtesy of Etisalat

via Flickr © Luca (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Luca (CC BY 2.0)

  • Altiostar, Cisco, NEC working with Abu Dhabi-based telco on Open V-RAN rollout
  • Unclear whether it's a live or trial network, but a UAE-wide deployment is in the works
  • Etisalat is the latest in a growing list of operators escaping from the proprietary RAN world

The O-RAN bandwagon gathered pace during 2019, and in 2020 it looks likely to pick up where it left off, after Etisalat laid claim to being the first MENA operator to roll out an Open vRAN.

The Abu Dhabi-based telco is one of the latest to attempt to escape the proprietary world of the traditional RAN vendors, working with O-RAN Alliance members Altiostar, Cisco, and NEC, among others. Etisalat said it is using commercial off-the-shelf hardware from third parties, as it transforms its RAN into a software-based network.

"Keeping in line with Etisalat's strategy of 'driving the digital future to empower societies', deploying the Open vRAN is vital in enabling digital transformation aimed at increasing efficiencies and the utilisation of AI," said Saeed Al Zarouni, SVP of mobile networks at Etisalat.

Decoupling the programmable software elements of the RAN from the hardware leads to deployment flexibility, scalability, agility and energy efficient networks, Etisalat said, adding that it also promises to be quicker to deploy than a traditional RAN.

Details of the scale of the deployment are vague to say the least; it's not even clear whether this is a fully-fledged switch-on or a trial. However, one quote from the announcement suggests it is early days for Etisalat.

"Etisalat now plans to roll out Open vRAN across the UAE to take full advantage of all the benefits that this new technology offers," said Al Zarouni.

Open season

A growing number of operators have bought into the O-RAN dream since the O-RAN Alliance formed in February 2018 from the merger of the XRAN Forum and the C-RAN Alliance.

"It's not easy, because the RAN is a very complex system," explained Olivier Simon, director of radio innovation at Orange, to TelecomTV during September's Open Networking Summit in Antwerp. It needs open interfaces, specifications, open source code etc., he said. Layers higher up the stack lend themselves more readily to being virtualised and hosted at the edge, he explained, "but with time, more and more will go to the edge cloud." (see more).

Telcos seem up for the challenge though. Vodafone caused a stir in October when it announced plans to fast track O-RAN adoption across its European footprint. In the same month, Telefonica invested in Altiostar, which makes Open vRAN software, and joined its technology advisory committee.

In September, NTT DoCoMo began rolling out O-RAN, having achieved multi-vendor interoperability across a range of 4G and 5G base station hardware in partnership with Fujitsu, NEC and Nokia.

They join the likes of AT&T, BT, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, SK Telecom and Telstra, among others, which are all backing the O-RAN Alliance. 2020 promises to be an exciting year for open standards-based networking.

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