In 2016, Facebook teamed up with Deutsche Telekom, Intel, and several other industry leaders to accelerate the disaggregation and evolution of carrier infrastructure. To date its most noteworthy successes have come in the field of open RAN, facilitating projects such as Rakuten’s recent 4G open RAN launch, which included Airspan and Nokia equipment run by Altiostar software. This February, TIP announced a new project group Open Core Network (OCN), followed by a programmatic webinar in April. Led by Rakuten and Facebook, with significant participation from Amdocs, Vodafone, Mirantis, and others, this project group could give fresh energy to open up the telco core market and pose a challenge to traditional core providers Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia.
Rakuten CTO Tareq Amin promised to take the lessons of Rakuten’s open network to the rest of the industry, and that formed part of TIP OCN co-chair Sagiv Draznin’s opening message in the group’s April webinar. While Rakuten has been making headlines at MWC and beyond for the last couple of years, it has not been as visible in the leadership of open industry bodies. Rakuten’s chairing of TIP OCN thus marks a significant step-up in its leadership of industry groups, further enforced by April’s announcement that Rakuten is joining the Linux Foundation’s Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) as a silver member.
The OCN group is the only TIP Core and Services project which Facebook co-chairs. As part of the group it leads the subgroup focusing on Applications and Services. This suggests an increasing interest from Facebook to further integrate itself into the management and harmonization of network functions and workloads between network domains. The group also has more established leadership, with Alla Goldner of Amdocs and Ian Wilkinson from Vodafone leading the Orchestration subgroup, and Boris Renski, co-founder of Mirantis, and founder of new venture FreedomFi, leading the Automation subgroup. Mirantis is also listed as a participant, along with Telenor, Wavelabs, British Telecom, and CPQD who make up the rest of the founding members.
The OCN project group launched in February, and is now only a few weeks away from its first milestone in June: the release of draft deliverables for a minimum viable 5G Core (5GC). By August they aim for Release v1.0, followed by a PlugFest in October, and lab trials to begin in November. However, these are but the tip of the project subgroup leaders’ ambitions. In the public April webinar, both Facebook’s Shah Rahman, and Amdocs’ Alla Goldner voiced hope that by year-end testing could already begin on an open core in the field. FreedomFi’s Boris Renski was more reticent, but did offer this as a possible extra stretch goal for the automation subgroup as well.
The operator who would be brave enough at this stage to put one of their 5G network cores on the line looks most likely to be Rakuten or Vodafone. Even as it continue to rapidly expand its 4G footprint, Rakuten is preparing for the commercial launch of a 5G network. However, with Nokia and Cisco as its currently announced suppliers for its core network, it is unclear how easy it would be for them to do this as a fully integrated part of their current network build, considering Nokia and Cisco, though part of TIP, are not yet members of the TIP OCN group. Vodafone looks to be the next likely candidate considering their enthusiasm for open RAN deployments, and high level of leadership engagement within TIP; most recently they announced that Vodafone Idea, the group’s Indian subsidiary, is working with Mavenir on an open RAN solution, and Santiago Tenorio is the current Chairman of TIP’s Board.
Outside the currently confirmed project group members, Dish could be considered as a possible greenfield champion for open core as Rakuten has been for open RAN. It is set to become the fourth US national 5G carrier to replace Sprint, and has already announced its support for open RAN. However, Dish is not currently part of the OCN group and already targeting at least one core network running in the US before the end of 2020 as part of its own ambitious timelines. If OCN is able to get a minimum viable core into field tests before the end of the year, Dish is still unlikely to deploy a bleeding edge open core solution in an increasingly competitive US telecoms market.
A component of open RAN’s success has been the ability to foster new suppliers as alternatives to Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia; though even today these three still command 80% of the RAN market. TIP has been able to offer companies such as Altiostar, Parallel Wireless, and Mavenir deployment sites across a range of RAN environments to trial and improve their product offerings. The network core is a different, much more sensitive domain as it handles the most critical network processes and information. Operators will be more reluctant to turn over this infrastructure to untested vendors than they already have been to pass over control of the RAN, even under growing regulatory pressures to increase the diversity and security of their suppliers.
With this in mind the OCN project group looks best-placed to foster new competition in the market in two areas: the network core itself, where it offers already established challenger companies such as Mavenir, and established solution providers who already provide some core services a platform to expand their core portfolios, and develop greater ecosystem solutions. Secondly, at the edge “cores” of the network and in private networks newer vendors could appear as these remain new and evolving markets. Again, Mavenir looks to be favorably placed by its current core portfolio, and growing private LTE footprint. TIP OCN could also be an opportunity for public cloud players, who have been building up their telco core networking muscle, to integrate themselves even deeper into carrier networks. Microsoft is an obvious candidate having announced this year the acquisition of both Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch with their network core portfolios. Microsoft is also already part of TIP; AWS and Google Cloud are not currently members.
TIP’s particular utilization of standards, open source, and industry know-how is geared toward execution. An ethos that has worked for open RAN, but is yet to be proven for TIP’s Core and Services projects. What OCN needs to be successful is to reach that stretch goal to achieve field testing of an open core. This means service providers must step up, get involved, and open-up their labs and cores; the new Altiostars and Parallel Wirelesses must be inspired; and if a public cloud provider gets involved? That might just give TIP OCN the biggest boost of all.
Open RAN Commercial Progress in 2020, SPT002-000329 (May 2020)
RAN Vendor Update 2019, SPT002-000266 (November 2019)
TIP Open Core Network Project Group webinar(April 2020)
Chris W Silberberg, Research Analyst, Carrier Network Software