Nokia Debuts Open RAN on MEC

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By: Mary Jander

Nokia (NOK) has unveiled a 5G multi-access edge compute (MEC) product with Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) capabilities, making plain that incumbent 5G suppliers will hew to the emerging open standard while strengthening their service-provider foothold.

“We are committed to making it easier for our CSP customers to actively support the adoption of Open RAN principles and standards,” said Pasi Toivanen, head of the Edge Cloud business unit at Nokia in a prepared statement.

The vehicle for this strategy is Nokia’s Service Enablement Platform (SEP), which contains a near-real-time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) equipped with “xApps.” These are applications defined by standards group O-RAN Alliance to automate and orchestrate the management of all RAN traffic and elements. Nokia describes them as follows:

“Nokia Advanced Traffic Steering xApp… [is] an AI/ML-based optimization algorithm that dynamically improves the efficiency of traffic distribution in the radio access network…. [T]he Nokia Anomaly Detection xApp … uses machine learning to quickly detect and classify irregular behavior patterns in the RAN.”
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Nokia says its SEP platform supports xApps from other suppliers, though the SEP runs on the same servers as the vendor’s MEC — namely, the Intel Xeon-based AirFrame server designed for the edge of carrier networks.

O-RAN On the Upramp

Since O-RAN virtualizes RAN functions to promote white-box and multi-vendor hardware deployment, pundits originally assumed vendors like Nokia would resist the approach. But over the past few months, O-RAN seems to have caught on with incumbents, driving up projections for the technology. Research firm Omdia, for one, now predicts O-RAN implementations will generate roughly $3.2 billion in annual revenues by 2024.

Besides Nokia’s announcement, evidence of O-RAN’s rising popularity can be found in the release of new chips from Marvell designed to support the standard. Ericsson also is implementing a RIC in its customer networks and last October announced Ericsson Cloud RAN, a cloud-native software system that can run on any compute platform — as opposed to specially designed hardware. While not O-RAN-specific, the intent is similar.

Smaller companies are weighing in. Startup Mavenir is building O-RAN products for carrier use. And Metaswitch, bought by hyperscaler Microsoft (MSFT) in May 2020, has been part of at least one O-RAN trial in Europe.

Why Incumbents Are Key to O-RAN

It's not surprising to see Nokia and rivals like Ericsson supporting specs that virtualize RAN functions and eliminate vendor lock-in. These are the companies with the expertise needed to implement O-RAN effectively within telco networks, where they have longstanding relationships. And as 5G opportunities increase, the chance to grab share where they’re already popular should be irresistible.

There is also the potential that unless Nokia et al take the reins, other players will wrest them away. This seems more likely to happen thanks to virtualized RAN, which opens the way for RIC and cloud-native RAN implementations from the likes of VMware (VMW), which also has trialed O-RAN technology.

Carriers Will Drive O-RAN Adoption

Ultimately, carriers will determine the rate and scale of O-RAN adoption. And though O-RAN has been officially implemented in just a couple of carrier networks worldwide, including Dish Network and Rakuten Mobile, many trials are afoot besides the ones mentioned.

Brazil’s mobile operators are working with Nokia, for example. AT&T (T) contributed to the development of Nokia’s O-RAN, and China Mobile has trialed Nokia’s RIC. (It's worth mentioning that some Western telcos view products from Nokia, NEC, Ericsson, and others as potentially replacing any Chinese O-RAN suppliers, which makes deals with Chinese mobile providers sensitive.) Telefonica UK recently finished a trial organized by NEC that included kit from Altiostar, GigaTera Communications, and Supermicro.

All of these trials and relationships point to mounting support for O-RAN among carriers. While incumbents will benefit from this, it’s clear there’s also a chance for many others to contribute. Smaller players such as Mavenir could augment or displace the incumbents in certain situations. And hyperscalers and other cloud technology suppliers will contribute cloud-native O-RAN elements.

Ubiquitous adoption may be a few years away, but the push to virtualize RAN connectivity in order to promote intelligent, automated management and vendor diversity is undeniable. There are many approaches to consider and many layers to explore. Expect to see much more activity in this space.