NEC Open RAN equipment. Photo: NEC

TOKYO – Japan’s NEC has been selected by Telefonica Germany as the system integrator for the first Open RAN pilot system in Germany. The decision was made based on NEC’s history of successful project completions with the Telefonica Group.

Open radio access network (RAN) standards allow different companies to supply different parts of a telecommunications network, giving telecom service providers more flexibility and independence from large suppliers of complete systems such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. Aware of this, Nokia is also promoting Open RAN.

NEC will coordinate the design and delivery of the Telefonica system in coordination with several other partners in the project. These include ADVA, GigaTera, Altiostar, Red Hat, Dell, Supermicro, Intel and Xilinx.

Altiostar partnered with NEC and Rakuten Mobile to build the first Open RAN telecom network in Japan. It is partially owned by Rakuten and works closely with NEC on other Open RAN projects as well.

Also in Germany, Deutsche Telekom is working with NEC, Fujitsu, Dell, Nokia, Mavenir and others, targeting its first deployment of 4G and 5G Open RAN in 2021. The technology will be validated in an “O-RAN-Town” north of Berlin and in subsequent projects. Deutsche Telecom is aiming for mass deployment of 5G Open RAN in 2023 or 2024.

And it has been reported that 1&1 Drillisch, a subsidiary of Germany’s United Internet, also plans to build an Open RAN 5G network. Following the example of Rakuten, 1&1 Drillisch aims to become Germany’s fourth mobile telecom carrier. 

Rakuten is all in on Open Ran. Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri

United Internet CEO Ralph Dommermuth told the press that “traditional” equipment makers would be avoided. This should open the door to Japanese suppliers.

In conjunction with the Cyber Initiative Tokyo 2019 event held on the November 24 and 25, Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo met with NEC, Fujitsu and Rakuten to discuss their 5G offerings. He told Japanese news media that Malaysia remains open to proposals” while aiming for 5G spectrum allocation by June 2021 and commercial services later in the year. 

Malaysia keeps its options open and Japanese companies join Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia as potential suppliers of 5G equipment and solutions in Malaysia.

All this is in addition to the announcement of NEC’s 5G Open RAN initiatives in the UK and India.

Not enough for US tech war hawks

None of this has yet softened advocates of American “full spectrum dominance,” who are upset with Malaysia and Germany over their refusal to explicitly exclude Huawei from its 5G telecom market. But let’s look at the two countries’ actual policies.

In his comments in Tokyo, Malaysia’s Gobind also said, We are open to any technology providers that can assist in the expedient and cost-effective deployment of infrastructure, including Huawei.

Any decision by local communications service providers to partner with Chinese firms would be a commercial decision, but the regulatory requirements in relation to standards and other technical matters would have to be adhered to.”

Similarly, the German government has introduced a new law that requires suppliers of telecom equipment to guarantee in advance that their products cannot be used for sabotage, espionage or terrorism, and allows it to ban any supplier from the country’s 5G networks on the basis of national security.

This, of course, is a way of enforcing a principle without offending a major trade partner.

In its obsession with keeping China down, the American government is neglecting an obvious opportunity to promote American companies as key suppliers of 5G and other next-generation telecom technologies.

Huawei is in the crosshairs of US President Donald Trump’s tech war. Image: Facebook

As mentioned, Telefonica and Deutsche Telecom’s 5G Open RAN projects include American software developers Altiostar, Red Hat and Mavenir, American computing technology vendors Dell and Supermicro, and American semiconductor companies Intel and Xilinx.

There is also room for Huawei in Open RAN and there would probably be room for American suppliers in China’s 5G roll-out if it weren’t for President Trump’s new Chinese exclusion act. Ericsson and Nokia each has a substantial presence in China.

President Biden may take a more practical and constructive approach to China. And in that case China might respond with a less belligerent and exploitative approach to trade and investment. But for the time being, the momentum in 5G telecom is with Japan and its partners in Open RAN.

Telefonica

Telefonica Germany is a subsidiary of Spain’s Telefonica, SA. It provides standard telecom services to individual and corporate customers, and services related to the internet of things and data analysis.

Telefonica is adopting Open RAN in order to more rapidly integrate these services with its core 5G network – supplied by Ericsson. Management expects this to reduce hardware replacement times from weeks to days or hours, and to reduce costs by as much as 30% – largely offsetting Huawei’s pricing advantage.

Last September, Rakuten Mobile and Telefonica, SA signed a memo of understanding to cooperate in the development of Open RAN, 5G Core (which aggregates data traffic from end devices) and OSS (operations support systems).

The two companies plan to:

  • Conduct research, lab tests and trials to support OpenRAN architectures;
  • Develop proposals for optimal 5G RAN architecture and OpenRAN models;
  • Collaborate in building an open and cost-effective 5G ecosystem, based on open interfaces;
  • Develop a joint procurement scheme of OpenRAN hardware and software that will help increase volumes and reach economies of scale; and
  • Work on 4G/5G Core and OSS technology utilized by Rakuten Mobile in Japan and its Rakuten Communications Platform.

Enrique Blanco, Telefonica’s chief technology and information officer, notes that “Telefónica strongly believes that networks are evolving towards end-to-end virtualization through an open architecture, and OpenRAN is a key piece of the whole picture.

“Beyond the flexibility and simplicity that OpenRAN will provide, it will change the supplier ecosystem and revolutionize the current 5G industry in the medium and long term,” he said.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.