AT&T Seeks Simplicity With its Open RAN Solution

Critics of Open RAN have warned of the complexity operators will face as they work to integrate RAN solutions from multiple vendors, but AT&T’s (NYSE: T) flavor of Open RAN is designed to cut complexity, according to the operator. Unlike DISH Network, an EchoStar (NASDAQ: SATS) subsidiary, which has worked hard to integrate hardware and software from a variety of sources into its Open RAN network, AT&T is starting with a very short list of partners. The operator is trying to simplify its network with help from Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) on the software side. 

“We announced a partnership with Ericsson to be our initial SMO provider, service management orchestration” said AT&T’s Todd Zeiler, VP Wireless Engineering, at Connect (X) in Atlanta. He characterized SMO as an “open OSS (operations support system),” but added that not everyone on his team likes that description.

According to Zeiler, open equals simple because one software platform can manage multiple RAN elements. “You can imagine the advantages, especially in your outdoor layer – we’ll talk tall towers, rooftops and small cells – to a common software layer,” Zeiler said. “It starts out with special purpose hardware but pivots to our partners at Dell when we begin to virtualize the network.” 

Even as AT&T pivots to Dell (NYSE: DELL) hardware, the operator may still use Ericsson software. Ericsson and Dell just announced a partnership that will see them jointly offering Ericsson cloud RAN software on Dell servers. 

Zeiler said a common software platform will save AT&T time and money. “We had to pivot to a cost structure that was more simple,” he said. “You can imagine how many legacy OSS platforms are running, how many SON [self-optimizing network] platforms are running. … the amount of interoperability [and] the amount of testing with every software release is highly complex.”

To streamline that, AT&T wants “one platform management layer no matter which vendor we are using,” said AT&T SVP and Network CTO Igal Elbaz, speaking at an Ericsson analyst event on May 20. Elbaz said he hopes to have more details about the SMO platform later this year. 

Both Elbaz and Zeiler envision the SMO as a foundation for applications that can develop new revenue streams and drive costs out of the network. 

“This is the whole idea for Open RAN,” said Elbaz. “When the next wave of innovation is going to show up, we now have the right and the intent to participate.” Elbaz said he sees innovation coming from telco industry veterans investing in startups to develop apps that can run “on top of the management layer.”

Creativity will also play a part in radio hardware, Zeiler predicted. He said this will be a necessity because of spectrum shortages.

“What do you do when you’re out of spectrum? You densify,” he said. “It will drive innovative thought on how to get radios closer to the customer, so we will be opening up to creativity in the radio space.”

By Martha DeGrasse, Inside Towers Contributing Analyst

This article represents the opinions of veteran telecom industry editor and journalist Martha DeGrasse, an Inside Towers Contributing Analyst with features appearing monthly. DeGrasse owns Network Builder Reports and contributes regularly to several publications. She was formerly a writer and editor with RCR Wireless and a TV business news producer.

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