Recent events led some folks to question the pace at which the industry is moving to open Radio Access Networks (RAN).

Of course, for some vendors, the move can’t come fast enough. Parallel Wireless CEO Steve Papa said it’s really a marathon, not a sprint, when he explained some of the sizable layoffs that recently occurred at his firm. Like many new technologies, it’s taking time for open RAN to reach the stage where all the advantages – like a mix-and-match architecture – really come to fruition.

Well, Patrick Lopez, currently the global vice president of 5G Product Marketing at Japanese vendor NEC, is here to say that’s it’s actually moving pretty fast.

During his career, Lopez was the Madrid-based global VP of Network Innovation at Telefonica Group, working on technology that led up to open RAN before it was known as open RAN. That was about five years ago. In that time, open RAN has grown from being a new concept to being deployed commercially at scale in large Tier 1 networks, he said.

Often during a technology shift, there’s a hype cycle with a lot of white papers and PowerPoints, and then the technology comes to fruition some eight or nine years later. “I think open RAN is moving much faster than that,” he told Fierce.

“It’s probably one of the faster moving technologies that we’ve seen. Could it go faster? Yeah, absolutely. Network operators are providers of critical infrastructure. It takes a long time to implement a new technology and to bring in new vendors,” regardless of whether it’s open RAN, he said. Plus, it has to be at least as good as the previous technology and promise something new.

Lopez does see open RAN moving much slower in North America than in other parts of the world, although federal government stimulus is promising. Dish Network is leading the charge in the U.S. with its open RAN network, but that’s a greenfield endeavor. It’s a lot more challenging for incumbent operators with legacy hardware.

NEC makes inroads

NEC is not a Dish vendor. But it has a long history in the movement, tracing back to the world’s first deployment with NTT DoCoMo. NEC also was involved in the first open RAN Massive MIMO deployment with Rakuten, and it has a couple dozen private networks using open RAN.

While it’s involved in other deployments around the world – including with big operators like Telefonica, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom – the work in Japan is notable because that country was an early adopter.

In Japan, open RAN is commercially deployed at scale in urban environments. Europe is transitioning from labs and trials to live deployments. North America, with the exception of Dish, is still mostly in the labs when it comes to open RAN, Lopez said.  

One of the reasons so many operators are interested in working with NEC has to do with its experience in Massive MIMO. To this day, Lopez said he believes NEC is the only vendor with a Massive MIMO open RAN product that’s commercially deployed at scale in an urban environment.  

He’s careful to point out the qualifiers when it comes to Massive MIMO. There are other vendors with Massive MIMO but they’re not necessarily open RAN, and they’re not at scale. NEC has been deploying Massive MIMO for open RAN for the past couple years in Japan. It’s also been in Europe. DoCoMo, Rakuten, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone are all doing Massive MIMO and open RAN, he said.

When open RAN started, most vendors and operators were thinking about it more for rural areas or maybe private networks –  and mostly for small capacity deployments. NEC, DoCoMo and Rakuten were thinking of it as “just RAN, but open,” he said. “So we tackled the most difficult problem first, which is how to deploy open RAN in a large urban environment, very high density, like Tokyo, and for those environments you need Massive MIMO.”

That has set it apart in the open RAN space With Massive MIMO, there’s a lot of technology that goes into managing beamforming and reducing interference while optimizing for coverage and capacity. The more antennas you put into a densely populated space, the more challenging it gets.

While it’s got plenty of work in Japan and Europe, NEC has made some important investments in North America, including the acquisition of Blue Danube earlier this year, which gives it some additional know-how in the Massive MIMO space.

It’s preparing to open a Center of Excellence later this year on the East Coast; the exact location is yet to be announced, according to Lopez.

NEC’s ambition is to capture 20% of the RAN market by 2030.

Earlier this year, NEC announced 18 new open RAN radio unit (RU) products and configurations, including in the areas of Massive MIMO, 4G, single band and dual band. It products usually correspond to spectrum in bands N77 and N78, or 3.5 – 3.7 GHz.

Of course, one of the proof points for any vendor when it comes to open RAN is how well they’re integrated with other vendors. Lopez said NEC has done integrations with Rakuten/Altiostar, as well as Mavenir and Samsung. He suggested there are others that are not yet disclosed, and it’s quite likely more will be announced around the Mobile World Congress (MVW)/Las Vegas timeframe.

In July, NEC agreed to acquire Aspire Technology, a Dublin, Ireland-based company that specializes in system integration, with unique skills in integrating open networks.

NEC certainly isn’t new to the U.S. market, but one reason it’s not that well known outside Japan is because wireless was very proprietary in Japan until 4G. Japan’s technology, known as iMode, was essentially the mobile internet before there was the iPhone or other smartphones. The networks were dense and services were advanced.

Basically what happened is the 3GPP and ETSI caught up, according to Lopez. “With 5G, finally, we all have the same network capabilities because the rest of the world has caught up with a lot of the innovation that came out of Japan,” he said.

He said NEC considers itself as “radically” open.

“We want to disrupt the market by really allowing operators to deliver on the 5G promise,” which means creating connectivity products for specific use cases. The only way to do that is to have a set of high-performance products of its own and to integrate with other vendor, he said.

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