For much of 2023 it seemed as if open radio access network (open RAN) technology had lost all its luster in the U.S. But of course, AT&T’s announcement this month that it would forge ahead with open RAN, working with Ericsson, has given a jolt to the technology.

In the U.S. the biggest carrier champion of open RAN has been Dish Wireless. Unfortunately, Dish began the year with a slew of bad luck, including a cybersecurity hack, the departure of some top executives and financial struggles due to the high interest-rate environment. The challenges have left Dish with little time to focus on open RAN.

Globally, we knew we were at the nadir of the open RAN hype cycle in August when Tareq Amin departed abruptly from his positions as CEO of Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony.

Next Curve analyst Leonard Lee said at the time that Amin “has been kind of the poster child for open RAN, a real pioneer.” Lee noted that Amin had been a really prominent spokesperson for the standards and the advancement of open RAN technologies. Amin has since started a new job as CEO of Aramco Digital in Saudi Arabia.

The only major activity in open RAN seemed to be happening in Europe where Vodafone has been active. 

In August, Vodafone UK said it was going to start installing open RAN technology at scale in southwest England. The carrier was partly motivated by the U.K. government, which gave U.K. mobile operators until 2027 to remove Huawei equipment from their networks. And the government expressed a preference for open RAN.

In October at a Telecom Infra Project (TIP) event, Andrea Dona, chief network officer with Vodafone UK, said the carrier was running live open RAN technology in the towns of Torquay and Exter in England at 22 sites, and it was in the process of deploying more sites.

At that same TIP event, Vodafone said it was working with Arm to fast-track the development of new open RAN platforms, using Arm-based architectures, and it was also working with Intel on semiconductor development for open RAN.

Aside from Vodafone’s leadership on open RAN, there has been some other open RAN activity in Europe.

Saqlain Ali, senior analyst at ABI Research, noted multiple contracts between operators and vendors, including commercial open RAN deployments in Italy (Vodafone and Nokia), the UK (Virgin Media O2 and Mavenir), France (Orange with NEC and Mavenir), Bulgaria (Vivacom with Parallel Wireless) and Germany (DT and Mavenir).

AT&T and Ericsson

But things finally got interesting with open RAN in the U.S. just this month when AT&T announced it was embracing open RAN with Ericsson.

AT&T struck a five-year $14 billion contract with Ericsson with a plan for 70% of its wireless network traffic to move across open-capable platforms by late 2026. The company expects to have fully integrated open RAN sites operating in coordination with Ericsson and Fujitsu starting in 2024.

The announcement of that deal was a dagger to the chest of Nokia. The Finnish company issued a lengthy statement in response to the news from AT&T and Ericsson, saying that revenue from AT&T accounted for 5%-8% of its Mobile Networks sales year to date in 2023. The company expects its Mobile Networks to remain profitable over the coming years, but now its goal of achieving double digit operating margin will probably be delayed by up to two years.

Fierce Wireless spoke with John Baker, SVP of business development with Mavenir, who said AT&T’s announcement that it was pursuing open RAN will probably help all open RAN vendors in the long term.

But Baker expressed concern about some work that the Open RAN Alliance is doing in regard to uplink performance for massive MIMO radios. Ericsson has proposed one type of interface, while others in the Open RAN Alliance have proposed a different interface solution.

In a LinkedIn post on December 13, Baker wrote, “We cannot allow an end-run attempt by anyone to force their interface into the O-RAN Alliance specification and use exclusive contracts with customers to continue the proprietary vendor lock.”

Presumably, Baker was referring to Ericsson, which now has the clout of AT&T backing it.

He added in his LinkedIn post: “Open RAN equipment needs to be built to open specifications and all components need to be interoperable. At last week’s Open RAN North America, in Dallas, we challenged others about being backward compatible with specified interfaces, one response was ‘Only if there is a business case.’” He implored the open RAN community to “not rush to produce standards and accept a single supplier position.”

Things might be getting contentious for open RAN in the U.S., which should make 2024 an interesting year to follow the topic.

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