Interoperability. It’s been touted as the key to unlocking the possibilities of 5G. So it makes sense that 3GPP is working to bake it in to the next generation specifications and groups working on virtualization – including ONAP – have embraced the idea of open standards. But despite the hype, some in the industry are warning 5G is on track to hit the same roadblocks as its predecessor.
When thinking about 5G, it’s important to remember that deployments likely won’t happen in blanket fashion. As noted by operators like T-Mobile, initial rollouts are expected to happen in urban areas first, with the rest of the network supported by a 4G backbone. It’s this setup that creates a sticky situation for operators, John Baker, Mavenir’s SVP of Business Development, said. That’s because while 5G is supposed to be interoperable, a handful of equipment vendors in the 4G market have a “strangle hold” on operators courtesy of proprietary innovations on the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) platform. Those vendors aren’t likely to yield ground to new 5G players readily, he said.
“The operators are caught between how do I keep my existing network running today with those existing suppliers (and) … how are those suppliers going to treat their existing customers as soon as they start beating against them to open up interfaces,” Baker said.
As Baker explained, CPRI was meant to be an interoperable interface for all as well. But then radio vendors like Nokia and Ericsson expanded on those specs with features, for example, in areas like operations and maintenance and signaling, essentially closing those systems back up again.
Mavenir does has a horse in this race – Baker acknowledged that the existing interface makes it “very difficult” for a virtualized network function software company like his to make a play in that market space. But, he added, it’s about more than just one company’s ability to break into the market. 5G is on track to go down the same snared path that 4G traveled with CPRI, he said.
5G will be significantly more software-driven, and Baker said operators have already expressed their concern that legacy hardware vendors won’t play nice with new comapnies offering their own virtualized network functions (VNFs). That, he noted, could “stifle creativity” and impair operators’ ability to run the most cost effective networks possible.
“(Legacy vendors) are really trying to apply those same hardware models in a software world going forward,” Baker said. “To the extent that you talk about VNFs being available on commercially available platforms, these guys have actually ended up generating their own equivalent of that platform, put their badge on it, and can say ‘you have to use my compute platform with my VNFs to ensure that I’m going to stand up to the SOAs.’ So that sort of defeats the object of having all of these VNFs as open standards.”
Ericsson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But Nokia North America CTO Mike Murphy pushed back against the idea that his company was or would push other players out of the market. Nokia actually collaborates with these players to work them into its solutions, he said.
“Generally speaking, standardized interfaces work well when they don’t change frequently. In the case of CPRI, new radio features are introduced often, and thus the interface needs to change frequently. For this reason, innovation is actually slowed if it requires several companies to agree on those changes every few months. This applies to 4G and 5G,” Murphy explained. “That being said, Nokia works with several third party radio unit and component providers to incorporate their products into Nokia solutions, for market, technology, or unique customer requirements, and as such, we don’t see this as preventing external players from contributing innovation in practice.”
Baker insisted openness is in the details, and said operators have the power to push for more choice in radio and technology suppliers if they really want to.
“Interoperability is the key to sorting this, but at the end of the day it’s really got to come down as a mandate from the operator community that they want to see this true interoperability with their supply base,” Baker concluded. “They have the power to force the current incumbents to work with other third party suppliers, but unless they take the bull by the horns and join together on this it’s not going to happen.”