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You scream, I scream, we all scream, even UK GOV is screaming for Open RAN

You scream, I scream, we all scream, even UK GOV is screaming for Open RAN

A few weeks back, we scoffed at BT for being a little bit sniffy at the immediate commercial credibility of Open Radio Access Network (RAN). Well, we can’t claim sole credit, but at least one US company has broken cover and shown how limited that perception is.

The launch date for the entry of DISH into the US 5G market was originally set for mid-2020. Endless delays have meant that its actual debut has become a little bit of an industry swipe. But now, the company has confirmed its rolling out just such a service in Las Vegas… and it’s taken a rather interesting tack to get there: it’s going to use Open RAN.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised by the swerve. DISH—whose acronym stands for the Digital Sky Highway, no less—is something of a colourful company anyway and has a track record for openness to the path less taken, including, as of July 2020, also operating as an MVNO via (to date) three acquisitions.

It’s also not known for modesty: it’s committed to US regulators that it will cover at least 20% of the US population with 5G by, er, next month and 75% of the population by June 2025. Maybe its new tech approach could make that happen?

Signs are promising. What it has specifically done to get its service for Sin City off the ground is to buddy up with ​​Samsung Networks Business for all its 5G and RAN solutions, virtualised RAN software and a variety of O-RAN compliant radio units, including Massive MIMO radios, thus allowing it to say it has real 5G Open Radio Access Network solutions for the nascent DISH Wireless SMART 5G network. In other words, for several years ahead the pair will collaborate to deploy the South Korean electronics giant’s 5G O-RAN-compliant vRAN solutions and radio units in markets across the US to support DISH commercial services.

So at least one major operator believes Open RAN is a sensible way to offer open, interoperable cloud-based 5G services to consumers and enterprises across America.  Of course, Samsung is still a single vendor, so great as this link-up is, it arguably kind of misses the point of Open RAN—which philosophically is all about a standard for excellent 5G infrastructure interoperability and LEGO-brick mix and match equipment flexibility.

Chums—let’s not let BT eat this market too

But we still think this is a landmark move. And Whitehall thinks so, too—or at least, that it wants Open RAN solutions across the UK quickly and that it is making moves to try and attract new telecoms suppliers to the 5G supply chain via the standard. Specifically, Her Majesty’s Government has set out its vision of the foundations for “an effective and functioning telecoms supply market” and the priorities that will inform its approach to building one as part of the delivery of its £250 million programme of Open Networks R&D seed money.

What does that mean? “Increasing vendor diversity for telecommunications networks is an essential goal for the UK and other governments internationally, to enhance security, resilience, innovation and competition in critical national infrastructure and beyond,” its new White Paper argues. “This need is particularly acute in the mobile radio access network (RAN),” as it set out in its 2020 UK 5G Supply Chain Diversification strategy.

Thus, the Crown is offering a set of principles for developing and deploying Open RAN equipment, which it defines as “a new breed of telecoms kit which allows providers to ‘mix and match’ solutions from multiple vendors,” and which it deems is “not possible under current network setups”.

We couldn’t agree more… though we might ask, where are the MNOs driving this: after all, they will be the ones buying all this, so surely, they are a stakeholder community  that needs to be now seen to be taking Open RAN as seriously as that other MVNO, the Digital Sky Network?

We think they will emerge. But this could also be yet another well-meaning bit of Government pump-priming that doesn’t in the end offer enough scope for the SME to genuinely operate and sell on the same business playing field as the incumbents (one might even say, oligarchy). That’s on Procurement teams to really adopt the spirit of DISH, Samsung and the pen-pushers and their industry advisors here and treat all vendors alike and so remove that most pernicious of UK telco ecosystem phenomena… the eventual move of the BT-level player into a new, disruptive field and just absorbing it – quashing the opportunities for the very start-ups HMG wants to encourage.

Open RAN’s too good for that. Well done, DISH. Let’s see more and more like you taking the road less travelled.