Driving an open approach

The benefits of the new, open world

Openness. It's one of the most well-used terms in telecoms, as operators start to transition into a more open source-oriented world, with virtualised architectures and software-driven networks. It's not just about technology though: Openness is also about collaboration and learning from others, which is a pretty big cultural shift for an industry that has long talked a good game on the importance of partnerships – hence the rise of the dreaded 'coopetition' concept – but has retained a certain wariness on sharing too much.

Operators have always had to work together merely to ensure their core services work, but we're now far beyond bilateral roaming deals, and as the technology gets more complex, the collaboration requirement grows. They also need to foster stronger relationships with the vendor community, because as networks become increasingly virtualised and software-driven, the old sell side/buy side dynamic no longer works.

There have been telecoms industry bodies in operation for decades, but these are now growing in number, often founded by the operators themselves. These organisations are playing a vital role in bringing together the various stakeholders and fostering a new culture of collaboration. Telcos, vendors and others need to be open with one another if they are to progress in this new, open world. And the signs are good that they are starting to realise that.

"There is a growing recognition that telecom operators need to align their requirements to avoid fragmentation and achieve economies of scale, especially as we progress through the rollout of 5G," says Attilio Zani, Executive Director at collaborative industry body the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). "The starting point is the expression and management of requirements, and we are seeing a greater willingness from operators from around the world to do just that," he adds, pointing to this year's Open RAN collaboration announcement from four major European telcos as a prime example.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone in January signed an MoU to collaborate on Open RAN interoperability and deployment. "The four operators will work together with existing and new ecosystem partners, industry bodies like the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), as well as European policy makers, to ensure Open RAN quickly reaches competitive parity with traditional RAN solutions," they said in a joint statement.

The momentum behind Open RAN is undeniable. According to Dell'Oro, total Open RAN revenues, including O-RAN and OpenRAN compatible macro and small cells radios plus baseband hardware and software, grew fivefold year-on-year in the first quarter of 2021, leading the analyst firm to revise upwards its full-year forecasts; it now expects Open RAN revenues to double this year.

These technologies are no longer niche, and that means increased collaboration is here to stay. And telcos are getting closer than ever and learning new skills from outside their core circle.

"Standards bodies have been around for a very long time, and obviously the telecoms [operators] have long been major supporters of those activities," says Beth Cohen, Cloud Technology Strategist at Verizon and an active participant at open source group LF Networking on the Anuket telco cloud project. "However, the Open Source community has definitely had an impact on the industry in surprising ways," she says, one of which is the speed and the agility of the projects. "There is a far closer collaboration in the LFN Open Source projects," she explains. "It isn't about the operators dictating requirements and waiting for the standards to stabilize after a few years of careful consideration, it is about all parties actively collaborating on creating useful and tangible artefacts that are immediately folded into production services."

TIP's Zani shares a similar message.

"Telecom operators are learning from very capable webscalers in our community, integrating the learnings from the data centre and IT world into their operations," he says. "The speed at which I see our telecom operator participants are learning how to work with more open-source communities at the same time as realising that open-source is only one part of their mix is great to see from our vantage point," he adds. "Progress is happening here at a stellar pace and operators ability to step up and change is evidently alive and well."

Indeed, the telco community is no longer leaning solely on standards bodies and industry groupings that have been around for some time; operators are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DoCoMo and Orange formed the O-RAN Alliance three years ago, which has since attracted numerous other members from the telco side and elsewhere in the industry.

"Carriers around the world are recognizing the importance of building next-generation, programmable networks that are open, intelligent and flexible, making the work of the O-RAN Alliance more critical than ever," said Sidd Chenumolu, Dish vice president of technology development, when the US operator was elected to the alliance's board in February. Dish is building out its own 5G network based entirely on Open RAN standards. "The work of this organization creates a unified roadmap as our partners join us in developing a disaggregated and open RAN," Chenumolu said.

Dish could prove a highly disruptive force in the US mobile market once it has its own infrastructure up and running, which begs the question, how do operators work together effectively on one hand and offer competing services on the other?

"The Open Source organizations have well-established frameworks to allow companies to share what is needed to be shared more transparently," says Cohen. "LFN, GSMA, MEF and other such organizations have been around for a long time, and I think they allow just about the right amount of collaboration while reducing the risk of accusations of stifling business competition," she says.

Evidence suggests that telcos are all too aware of the need to collaborate, while maintaining competition.

Earlier this year the 5G Future Forum, a body set up by América Móvil, KT Corp, Rogers, Telstra, Verizon, and Vodafone at the start of 2020 to promote 5G and Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) interoperability, issued a call for new members, offering access to its existing specification documents and the opportunity to contribute to future specifications. "With a bolstered ecosystem of expanded partnerships, KT believes the 5G Future Forum will play a pivotal role in establishing the global edge market that drives innovation, collaboration and competition among ecosystem players," said Jae-ho Song, CDXO of KT Corporation, at the time.

The creation of the 5GFF coincided with the establishment of another two telco MEC bodies, demonstrating, amongst other things, the extent to which telcos feel the need to put their heads together to make the edge work. The longstanding Bridge Alliance mobile operator group, largely consisting of telcos from the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa, set up a global MEC Task force comprising six major players: SK Telecom, Singtel, Globe, Taiwan Mobile, HKT and PCCW Global. Meanwhile the GSMA launched the Telco Edge Cloud taskforce, which now has a couple of dozen operator members, with the aim of building a MEC platform to make edge computing services more interoperable, starting in Europe and eventually extending to other geographies.

This new, open world means operators need to be prepared to work with many more partners than ever before: it's not just about relationships with the big equipment makers any more, especially with governments pushing for vendor diversification. In its Q1 report, Dell'Oro noted that the top five RAN vendors – Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia, ZTE, and Samsung – dominate the US$10 billion-plus  Massive MIMO RAN market, but looks ahead to an improved supplier landscape. "Even if the Massive MIMO market is relatively mature and highly concentrated, it is not too late for suppliers with weaker RAN shares to use O-RAN combined with SA to enter this segment. And the number of suppliers that want to seize on this opportunity to bolster growth is increasing," it said, listing the likes of Airspan, Fujitsu, Mavenir, and NEC.

But irrespective of the names, the various stakeholders will need all the help they can get to play nicely together.

"To put it simply, TIP brings together capabilities of vendors in software and hardware from around the world and matches those capabilities to the requirements of actual use cases from service providers, making sure each solution can interoperate as a part of a larger end-to-end network," says Zani.

But as well as working with more vendors – and vendors increasingly working together – operators need to rethink the nature of their vendor partnerships.

"The relationship between the operators and vendors is changing, for the better. The traditional relationship of operators dictating the requirements, throwing them over the wall and expecting something usable to pop back over is long gone [and] I am not sorry to see it go; it was never really a healthy relationship to begin with," says Cohen.

"However, while operators have for the most part figured out that they need to contribute not only requirements but also the actual tools, many operators are still reluctant to support these development efforts directly, with their own resources," she notes. "It benefits operators and vendors alike to become more proactive in contributing to open source projects. Some operators have gotten the message more than others."