BT’s patronising stance on Open RAN really does no one any credit
Apologies in advance to our many highly-valued international readers, but this post definitely needs a Union Jack running over it. We’ll start by telling you why, quoting the body that works on behalf of the Queen to protect our national cyber security:
“All [UK] mobile operators to use two vendors in their Radio Access Network (RAN) for resiliency reasons. There are only three scale suppliers of 5G RAN kit that can currently be used in the UK: Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei.
We agree—but we also say that situation can’t change until some old school thinking goes for good out of the UK telco market.
And some evidence has just popped up that makes us worry there’s still a lot of that about. Let’s start with an analogy to explain--something we Brits love, which also has a whiff of a sex scandal, which we also adore.
It’s early days in Open RAN… as it once was with, er, telephony
A very long time ago in British politics, a Minister called Profumo had to resign because he’d lied to Parliament. And famously, someone involved in the case outside the House, when confronted by a belligerent QC in court that X had denied something skewered their ludicrous attempt at defence by observing, ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?'
We couldn’t help think back to that observation when reflecting on some comments at February’s MWC from our friends at BT. These expressed some scepticism, shall we say, about Open RAN. And while we’re happy to agree there are serious questions that help everyone in the market by being raised about how we get to a more open radio access network architecture, there was something about the way this was put that rankled, quite frankly.
It never hurts to start with a few facts. We’d probably all be a lot better off if there were more facts flying around, but we are where we are. Open-RAN’s advocates say they want ‘Open, Intelligent, Virtualized and Fully Interoperable RAN.’ Why would this be a good thing? Because today, the RAN, the Radio Access Network, of course—i.e., the access point for your cell phone signal getting on to the network, is a world of tight and closed protocols: conceptually, if you disaggregated all its pieces, from the radio to receiving unit on down, you could build very different sorts of networks if you wanted – and, crucially, bring more vendors along to the party.
And, of course, 5G will make that not just desirable, but probably actually 100% necessary. So far, at a high level of abstraction, so good. As is also well known, big chunks of the industry agree this is a good idea—hence the coming together of heavyweights like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO and Orange in 2018 to set up the O-RAN Alliance I’ve already noted as ‘advocates’ (and many more operators have flocked to its banner since). There are also deployments—in Japan, India, Australia, and in Europe. We’d be the first to admit many are still trials or very small, geographically-constrained pilots, e.g. Deutsche Telekom’s Open RAN work in the small city of Neubrandenburg, or Vodafone’s work with MTN in micro-sites all over the UK.
A reasonable outsider looking into all this would surely have to come away thinking, Here’s a good idea that’s starting to happen, albeit slowly, and should be welcomed. But BT doesn’t seem to be that observer, and it’s clearly time to say why we think so.
‘Scale deployment some years away.’ For sure, if you’ve got anything to do with it…?
Interviewed in Barcelona by Mobile World magazine, that vendor’s Group Chief Technology Officer, Howard Watson. To be fair, the online write up of all this is a bit less nuanced than the full conversation, which we recommend you check out for yourself here, but this exchange certainly caught our eye:
Open RAN—I know that BT are looking into it; what would you say is the long-term future of Open RAN, and how viable is it that you will go adopt Open RAN in your network?
It's good to see, this week, that Open RAN has sort of moved from PowerPoint to some real equipment. We will deploy Open RAN later this year for small cells and neutral host and we're also running a trial with Nokia in Hull, bringing the RIC [RAN Intelligent Controller] part the Open RAN ecosystem to life, and then we'll watch how it develops from a sort of 5G macro node perspective. [But] I see scale deployment there, at the right economics, still being some years away.
We've had a few interviews where there is [sic] suggestions that Open RAN could be overhyped than the cost benefits could be overhyped, would you…would you agree with that?
I think I think it's early to… I mean, naturally, we as an industry overhype everything to start with. I've yet to see the real cost benefits come through. In the open architecture and multi-vendor ecosystem, the promise is there, but it needs to be delivered.
To which one has to think, especially as BT is committed to doing that Hull trial with the stuff, Damned with faint praise, or what?
Let’s be clear. BT is a great company, and, clearly, Watson is also a very smart chap. And it’s fine to be a little patronising about a new tech like Open RAN at this stage.
But don’t mistake patronising for crushing competition. Without early adoption, the new ecosystem of smaller companies who want to grow by getting in on the ground floor of Open RAN solutions will be disrupted. To open up the more diverse and ultimately viable Open RAN market, we need a much more diverse supply chain and reduced vendor dependence. But as the country’s National Cyber Security Centre, which we quoted at the top of our discussion noted, “The underlying problem in all this is that the market is broken.”
Not just commercial but national security issues push us to a re-made UK telecom market
Ironically enough, some of Watson’s old oppos agree: GOV.UK announced two years ago that the Crown has tapped ex-BT boss (now Lord) Ian Livingston to lead a task force to attract new vendors to the UK telecoms scene, addressing address “a market failure where mobile companies are limited to using just three major suppliers in their telecoms networks”—a situation that “restricts choice and poses a risk for the security and resilience of the UK’s future digital networks”. And if you’re not enough of a red-blooded capitalist to think that’s a good enough reason for diversity, how about the NCSC’s fear about our reliance on HRVs, High Risk Vendors, and their threat to the nation?
As the latter stresses, the UK urgently needs to “diversify the market significantly” so that we have a more robust supply base to enable the long-term security of the UK networks and to ensure we do not end up nationally dependent on any vendor. And some of its specific recommendations for re-balancing the market and letting some fresh faces come through directly involves Open RAN, applauding the Telecom Infra Project and its demand for a new approach to building and deploying telecom network infrastructure that includes trying to cut some of the high R&D costs (OpenCellular and OpenRAN) and remove some of the operator costs for custom hardware (its OpenRAN project).
Against this background, Mr Watson sounds to us suspiciously like someone who doesn’t see the urgency… and that if and when BT thinks there’s enough market to warrant its generous involvement, it will do so from a traditional vendor.
So much for supporting innovation in the supply chain – particularly in BT’s home market. Is this old school telco thinking at its worst?
To decide, let’s see what BT does with its actions and not its words, in Hull and elsewhere with Open RAN.
We look forward to taking every word of this back.