MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS BARCELONA — A leader of open radio access network (open RAN) technology at AT&T this week said the operator wants to be on the leading edge of open RAN without taking unnecessary risks.

Fierce Wireless got to talk to executives from AT&T and Dell at the wireless show in Barcelona about their ground-breaking collaboration to deploy open RAN throughout AT&T’s network. And we asked Rob Soni, VP of RAN Technology with AT&T, whether it was worth it to be a leader, given the learning curve that it will involve.

Soni acknowledged that AT&T was an early leader in network disaggregation and virtualization of the core, and there were lessons learned as an early adopter. But the company wants to minimize the hard lessons on open RAN as much as possible, of course.

That’s one reason it’s chosen to work with only a few key partners initially. He said the company’s work on the core had some challenges with integrating products from multiple vendors. 

In December, AT&T made waves with the announcement that it chose Ericsson as its primary partner for open RAN.

And this week, AT&T’s Head of Network Chris Sambar said it has selected Dell to provide the servers for its big open RAN project.

Speaking on stage at MWC, Sambar didn’t specify how many servers AT&T would be buying from Dell, but he did say, “We’re probably going to need a lot. We have over 100,000 radiated elements in our network.”

Hardened hardware

An important consideration for the servers is the type of silicon they use for compute. In fact, the maturity of server silicon was something that AT&T was waiting for before it embarked on the open RAN journey.

Soni said, “If you were to step into this two or three years ago, the servers were not tailored for cell sites.”

The initial Dell servers for AT&T’s project will be outfitted with Intel’s Sapphire Rapids EE chips, which AT&T thinks have the density for its RAN use cases and acceleration needs.

“My old boss at VMware is now running the network division at Intel,” Soni added.

AT&T is already thinking ahead about the evolution of the silicon though, especially given the gold-rush related to generative artificial intelligence (gen AI). It wouldn’t want to buy thousands of servers that weren’t future ready.

Soni said, “We now have the ability to pivot based on when server vendors can deliver. Sapphire Rapids can do some AI related workloads. Granite comes 12 months later. Then Diamond comes another 12 months later.”

Dennis Hoffman, general manager of Dell Technologies Telecom Business, said the deal with AT&T is “big, economically.” But he said, “The more important thing is it’s big from that perspective that a company that’s a brownfield, old, large has decided to go all in on open RAN.”

He noted that the “flag bearer” for open RAN has been Vodafone. But with AT&T talking about 70% of its internet traffic on open RAN in three years, that puts it pretty high on the “influence pyramid.”

Roadmap for open RAN

The roadmap for AT&T’s open RAN project starts with Ericsson’s Intelligent Automation Platform (EIAP), in which AT&T plans to move its network management suite from hardware into the cloud. AT&T will also deploy some open radios concurrently with the deployment of EIAP.

And then third-party radios from Fujitsu will be deployed late this year or early in 2025.

The next step will be deploying cloud RAN into AT&T’s network, and that’s where the Dell servers come into play.

“We’re going to start relatively small scale this year on cloud RAN. The scale year is 2026,” Soni concluded.

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