Open RAN Networks – Layer 1 Acceleration Strategy Will Be Key To Operator Success

  • In-line, PCIe-based accelerator cards will be essential to process latency-sensitive, Layer 1 workloads in COTS-based massive MIMO open RAN networks.
  • Accelerator card energy efficiency will be a key differentiator among vendors as could the degree of Layer 1 stack openness.

Virtually all open RAN deployments to date are based on Intel’s FlexRAN reference software architecture running on x86-based COTS servers. While this configuration is adequate for low to medium traffic scenarios, it is not sufficient for high-traffic use cases in dense urban areas involving the use of massive MIMO radios.

Solving the massive MIMO performance deficit is a major challenge delaying the transition to open RAN. This challenge must be resolved before mainstream adoption of open RAN-based massive MIMO radios can occur. However, this will require a new breed of merchant silicon solutions designed to efficiently process latency-sensitive Layer-1 baseband workloads. Last year, a number of vendors announced alternatives to Intel’s FlexRAN platform based on ASICs, GPUs as well as RISC-V architectures and several of these vendors showcased their latest products recently at MWC-23 in Barcelona (Exhibit 1).

Look Aside Versus In-line Acceleration

Open RAN COTS platforms typically use PCIe-based accelerator cards to process the compute-intensive Layer 1 workloads. There are essentially two types of architecture designs: look-aside and in-line:

  • Look-aside accelerators offload a small subset of the 5G Layer 1 functions, for example, forward error correction, from the host CPU to an external FPGA or eASIC-based accelerator. However, this offloading adds latency and degrades system performance as the compute is done offline.

An alternative to using PCIe cards is to integrate the look-aside accelerator and CPU in a SoC. This eliminates the need for a separate PCIe card. Look-aside acceleration is used by AMD and Intel, including in the latter’s vRAN Boost integrated SoC design.

  • With the in-line accelerator architecture, all the Layer 1 data passes directly through the accelerator and is processed in real-time – a critical requirement for Layer 1 workloads. This processing is done by other types of processors, for example, ARM or RISC-V based DSPs, which results in a more energy-efficient implementation and reduces the need for additional CPUs with a high number of cores. For operators, this results in significant CAPEX and OPEX savings, particularly in the case of massive MIMO base stations, the most demanding of all 5G network deployments.

In-line accelerators also offer important scalability benefits as operators can add extra accelerator cards (up to six cards in a standard telco grade server) as more L1 capacity is required. In contrast, the look-aside architecture involves adding expensive, power-hungry COTS CPUs (+FPGA/eASIC cards) to meet capacity increases. In-line acceleration is used by ARM-based chip vendors such as Qualcomm Technologies, Inc and Marvell, as well as some RISC-V start-ups.

Layer-1 Software Stack

Chip vendors typically offer Layer-1 reference software stacks, which OEMs or third-party software vendors then customize and harden. This is an intensive two- or three-year process that demands considerable technical expertise and resources, particularly for telco-grade massive MIMO networks. With 5G, there is added complexity as the Layer 1 stack needs to be very adaptive and programmable to cater for the multitude of workloads and use cases. As a result, very few chip vendors offer carrier-grade Layer 1 software. In fact, the choice of vendors with the capability to develop macro cell massive MIMO Layer 1 stacks is essentially limited to the Tier-1 incumbents plus a handful of open RAN challenger vendors.

Tier-1 incumbents are unlikely to offer the same level of openness and flexibility as the challenger vendors, and hence accelerator cards from the latter may be a more attractive option for operators looking for a higher level of network customization. For example, Qualcomm Technologies will offer a set of APIs that allow vendors to port alternative software into its Layer 1 stack – such as beamforming or channel estimation algorithms. This lowers the barriers to entry for small software vendors and enables new players to enter the market – i.e. without requiring them to develop a full commercial-grade Layer 1 stack themselves. This could result in a rapid expansion of the Layer 1 software ecosystem.

Exhibit 1: Open RAN Layer 1 Accelerator Card Options by Vendor (Macro Cells)

Energy Efficiency – A Critical Metric

Reducing OPEX costs has become a major priority for operators due to soaring energy costs plus the need to minimize their carbon footprints. As a result, energy efficiency, i.e. Gbps/Watt, will be a critical metric for operators when evaluating Layer 1 accelerator cards. However, only a few vendors have revealed power consumption data. In a recent demo, Qualcomm Technologies showed the total power consumption of its Qualcomm® X100 5G RAN Accelerator Card [1] to be just 16-18W when driving a 16-layer 64TRx massive MIMO radio configuration serving four user devices (using four layers/device). According to the vendor, the card is designed to support a throughput of 24Gbps at less than 40W peak power consumption.


The open RAN story is gaining momentum and Counterpoint Research expects this growth to accelerate during 2023 and beyond driven by the availability of new merchant silicon solutions. To succeed in the marketplace, however, these new silicon platforms will need to demonstrate the potential to compete against the latest incumbent RAN solutions – across all key technical metrics – as well as offering the same level of advanced 5G features. Clearly, energy efficiency will be a major product differentiator, which puts current x86-based look-aside designs at a disadvantage compared to the latest in-line accelerators and suggests that most operators will favour the in-line architecture approach. Ultimately, the winning vendors will be those that are best able to satisfy the key technical requirements of individual operators while at the same time offering them the flexibility to customize their networks to suit their own requirements.


[1] Qualcomm X100 5G RAN Accelerator Card is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. Qualcomm is a trademark or registered trademark of Qualcomm Incorporated

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Rakuten's Q1 2023 Results – Key Highlights And Analysis

Rakuten released its Q1 2023 results earlier this month. Mobile segment revenue increased 25.7% YoY to $710 million but was down 11.5% sequentially compared to Q4 2022. Operating loss improved 22.4% to $760 million YoY with a smaller 4.7% improvement sequentially compared to Q4 2022.

Improving Customer Experience

In the short term, improving network quality is Rakuten’s main priority.  Following a recent customer survey, Rakuten has launched several initiatives to improve customer experience, most of which will be resolved by a new roaming agreement with KDDI – which includes access to the latter’s sub-1GHz spectrum for the first time. This should improve coverage, particular in-doors such as in the home and in high-traffic shopping malls, as well as underground in subways, tunnels, etc. However, Rakuten urgently needs to build its own low-band networks – i.e. in the so-called “platinum” band – starting probably in early 2024.

Selling the Family Silver

Rakuten is still in a precarious situation financially and is in the process of selling more of the family silver to fund its mobile network roll-out. This includes IPOs and the sale of stakes in some non-core assets, for example, the Seiyu supermarket chain. The company has also pushed back its target date to become profitable from the end of 2023 to an unspecified time in 2024.

Challenges of Rolling Out Greenfield Networks

Rakuten’s experience over the past three years illustrates the challenges of rolling out a greenfield network in a mature market and the time, effort and investment required to achieve coverage and reliability on a par with better-heeled rivals. Indeed, many of these challenges have nothing to do with the choice of network architecture, i.e. open RAN. As a result, there are many lessons here for Dish and 1&1 Drillisch.

The silver lining for Rakuten, perhaps, is that it is primarily a tech company and its Rakuten Symphony division is starting to deliver meaningful revenues, which are projected to accelerate during 2023. Dish and 1&1 Drillisch do not have that luxury!

Summary of Rakuten Customer Churn Survey

Exhibit 1:  Summary of Rakuten’s Customer Churn Survey

The full version of this insight report, including all highlights and viewpoints is published in the following report “Rakuten Unveils Plan To Boost Subscriber Growth” available to clients of Counterpoint Research’s 5G Network Infrastructure Service (5GNI).

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MWC-22 Las Vegas: Samsung Networks Makes Breakthrough In US Cable Market

Samsung Networks hit the headlines at MWC in Las Vegas with news of its first major contract with a US cable operator. The Korean vendor will provide 5G connectivity for Comcast across its 600 MHz and CBRS spectrum bands, which will include deployment of its new Strand small cell radio (Exhibit 1), developed specifically for the cable market in conjunction with Comcast.

Samsung Networks – Open RAN/vRAN Leader?

Samsung Networks first entered the mobile infrastructure market, primarily as a 4G network infrastructure vendor, around ten years ago. Since then, it has developed a portfolio of 4G and 5G products, with a major focus on the open RAN/vRAN based market. Counterpoint Research believes that Samsung is the undisputed leader in this emerging market at the present time, having won multi-billion dollar contracts with several major MNOs, including Verizon, Vodafone and most recently Dish.

However, Samsung is not just focused on the emerging open RAN/vRAN market. At the recent MWC event in Las Vegas, the vendor outlined its mobile infrastructure strategy to industry analysts, which encompasses targeting the cable and regional MNO markets in the US (and elsewhere), as well as the private networks market.


Exhibit 1:  Samsung’s Strand 2TRx Small Cell Radio

The CBRS Market

The CBRS service provider ecosystem encompasses a diverse set of mobile and fixed operators as well as a host of enterprises and other organizations building their own private networks.  Samsung sees opportunities in multiple CBRS markets, including the following:

  • Cable Market – cable operators made significant investment in CBRS spectrum back in 2020. However, they are only now starting to build their networks, typically offloading MVNO traffic in selected high-traffic regions, rather than building out nationwide mobile coverage.
  • Regional Operators – driven by digital divide stimulus funds from the US government, the rural broadband market will be a major opportunity during the next few years with many regional operators seeking to launch rural FWA services.
  • Private Networks – as well as private networks deployed by traditional mobile service providers, Samsung sees opportunities in serving a diverse range of customers in the CBRS band ranging from enterprises, schools and universities to industrial companies involved in energy and utilities, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, etc.

Key Takeaway No. 1:  The Disruptive Incumbent

Samsung is a challenger vendor and sees an opportunity to disrupt the status quo. As the smallest of the Big 5 in terms of market share, it has less to lose by introducing open RAN based networks compared to rivals. And in contrast to many smaller, open-RAN only players, its  can offer legacy as well as open RAN technology. With its own chip and foundry businesses – plus access to considerable technical and financial resources as part of a $260 billion cap industrial conglomerate – it is regarded as a reliable alternative to Ericsson and Nokia by many MNOs. However, with major rivals expected to launched “similar” products in 2023, the open RAN/vRAN market is set to become much more competitive.

Key Takeaway No. 2:  CBRS Early Mover Advantage Paying Dividends

Samsung launched its first FCC-certified CBRS mMIMO radio in July 2019. Since then the vendor has developed an extensive range of CBRS radios, including products developed specifically for the cable and  FWA markets. As a result, Counterpoint Research expects Samsung to benefit further from similar opportunities from other cable operators to complement its recent Comcast Xfinity Mobile win.

Buoyed by multi-billion dollar FCC funding, the rural FWA market is likely to be another major opportunity. Although there will be stiff competition from its Nordic rivals (plus some smaller vendors), Counterpoint Research believes that the Korean vendor is also well placed in this market, due primarily to its early mover CBRS advantage and backed by its growing reputation and track record as a reliable alternative to other incumbents in this market.


The complete version of this article, including the full set of key takeaways, is published in the following 5G Vendor Report, available to clients of Counterpoint Research’s 5G Network Infrastructure Service:

Samsung Outlines Mobile Networks Strategy at MWC, Las Vegas

Table of Contents



Key Target Markets

Strand Small Cell Radio

Key Cable & Regional MNO Customers



-Mercury Broadband

-Avista Edge

Key Takeaways


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Subscriber Adds and Network Roll-Out Key Focus for Rakuten, Dish and 1&1 Drillisch

With three greenfield operators – Rakuten, Dish and 1&1 Drillisch – at various stages of deploying their open RAN, cloud-native 5G networks, 2022 could turn out to be a pivotal year for the mobile telecoms industry. However, all three will need to overcome significant challenges during the year.

Rakuten: Subscriber Growth Challenge

Rakuten’s most pressing challenge is to ramp up subscriber growth and demonstrate that an open RAN, multi-vendor network operator can compete against incumbents in a very competitive and mature market. The operator maintains that it will break-even by the end of 2023. Using a conservative target of 20 million subscribers, Counterpoint Research estimates that Rakuten needs to at least double its 4Q 2021 subscriber acquisition rate consecutively every six months in order to do this (Exhibit 1). This would involve adding more than 4 million subscribers in the last quarter of 2023. This can only happen with a concerted marketing campaign – which costs money!

On its earnings calls, Rakuten has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to initiate a marketing campaign.  Counterpoint Research speculates that there may be several reasons for this:

  • Network coverage – despite reaching 96% 4G population coverage, it still lags its rivals, all of whom offer 99% coverage, perhaps a deciding factor for customers who frequently roam outside Japan’s metropolitan areas. Also, some cell densification will probably be required to iron out any remaining network problems. Clearly, the last thing Rakuten needs is a backlash from consumers if coverage and reliability are not up to scratch across the whole network!
  • High capex spending – despite plans for an IPO of its banking business plus some investment asset disposals, Rakuten’s finances are already stretched due to high mobile infrastructure capex. Success in the retail market will require a lot of investment and an expensive marketing campaign at this time might not go down well with the financial markets.

Exhibit 1:  Subscriber Growth Path to Reach Break-Even by 2023

Counterpoint Research Subscriber Growth Path to Reach Break-Even by 2023As a result, Rakuten may be biding its time. Nevertheless, at some point it will need to commit to marketing if it is going to have any hope of achieving success in the retail market. Although it offers the lowest-priced data packages, particularly for high data users, lower pricing alone does not seem to be sufficient to attract customers in their droves. This may be due to the lack of marketing but also because the number of customers interested in high-data packages at present is limited. However, this will inevitably change with the transition to 5G. And Rakuten is confident that it will benefit, as it believes that it will be able to offer much more competitive pricing than rivals due to its network cost advantages.

Dish: Imminent Deployment Targets

For Dish, the major challenge in 2022 is network deployment. In fact, network planning and deployment is a major challenge for any greenfield operator, whether traditional or open RAN, with many factors, for example, spectrum availability, outside their control. In addition, negotiations with tower companies – often involving 20-year leases – are complex and invariably take longer than expected. For greenfield operators deploying new, untested technologies, there is the additional challenge of integrating and optimizing all the new infrastructure.

At its recent earnings call, Dish maintained that it will satisfy regulatory requirements and launch commercial services in all its 27 markets by the 14th of June. However, with just over 10 weeks remaining, this looks increasingly unlikely. Counterpoint Research understands that Dish’s agreement with the FCC makes allowances for issues outside its control – such as supply chain problems – which would allow for timelines to be adjusted. An FCC extension therefore looks likely!

1&1 Drillisch: At the Network Planning Stage

Meanwhile Drillisch also looks as if it will struggle to meet its 1,000 radio site deployment target by the end of the year. The German MVNO has a regulatory requirement to provide 25% population coverage by 2025 and 50% by 2030. A complicating factor is the expected auction of 800 MHz band spectrum in Germany in 2026. Acquiring some of this low-band, high coverage spectrum would help Drillisch reduce its number of radio sites. However, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. Clearly, this makes business planning more difficult and may lead to additional delays.

A Window of Opportunity?

Greenfield operators have a window of opportunity to leverage their network advantage to capture 5G market share. However, with legacy CSPs fast migrating to cloud-native 5G, the clock is ticking for all three.  Rakuten has barely started mainstream deployment of its 5G network while the other two are still on the starting blocks!



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MWC 2022: 5G Open RAN, Private Networks, eSIM, Foldables & Sustainability Takes Center Stage

It was a great last week to physically go on the annual pilgrimage at the technology mecca GSMA MWC 2022 Barcelona after three years! It was a fantastic feeling to meet many of you in person with my rockstar colleagues.

These were some of the key trends at the show:

💡 5G is Everywhere:

Almost every booth was showcasing products, software or services with and for 5G. We saw a sleuth of 5G chipsets, phones/foldables, IoT Modules, CPEs, Robots, Drones, RAN, edge servers, software solutions and cloud. Foldables were also talk of the town and so were XR glasses as the industry looks for newer form-factors to make communication, content creation, consumption more immersive.


Hot booths: Qualcomm, ZTE Corporation, Huawei, Vodafone Deutsche Telekom, Zyxel, Samsung Electronics, Telit, MediaTek, Quectel, TCL Communication, Vuzix Corporation

Analysis here:

OPPO Find X5 Series, 240W Fast Charging Solution, AR Glass, & More Showcased at MWC 2022 (

Huawei Expands its Connected Devices Ecosystem with an E-Ink Tablet, AIO PC & More at MWC 2022 (

TCL Demonstrates New Foldable Concepts, Latest Devices – Counterpoint Research

💡Chipsets: Compute & Connectivity:

Great announcements & discussions with Qualcomm, Arm, Sony Semicon (IL) on the rise of newer technologies(Wi-Fi 7 , Snapdragon Connect, Bluetooth Snapdragon Sound) and architectures (security & compute, accelerators for Auto, IoT, RAN, Datacenters). e.g. ARM demoing the Scalable Open Architecture for Embedded Edge (SOAFEE) to drive collaboration between i automakers, semiconductor suppliers, open-source and independent software vendors, and cloud technology leaders to deliver next-generation connected software-defined vehicles (SDV) experiences. Qualcomm announced its latest Wi-Fi7 solutions in terms of FastConnect 7800

💡Open RAN & vRAN:

The second hot topic across most of the telcos, infra vendors, and SIs. Open Interfaces, cloudification, intelligent automation of RAN and beyond, virtualizing network functions, need for accelerators across the network layers, and more! Rakuten Symphony’s acquisition of was the biggest announcement as Rakuten encapsulates the IP behind RCP.

counterpoint mwc 2022 virtualized and open ran

Hot booths: Rakuten,, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Radisys Corporation, Vodafone, Qualcomm, and others

Analysis here:

Chip vendors showcase open RAN merchant silicon solutions at MWC-22 (

💡Private Networks:

This was the hottest topic as 5G infra kicks in and everyone in the value chain sees this as an opportunity to digitally transform the enterprises, industries and public sector applications with 5G.

counterpoint mwc 22 enterprise 5g

Hot booths: Cisco, Samsung Electronics, Microsoft, AWS,

Analysis here:

MWC 2022 Highlights Growing Interest in Private 5G Networks – Counterpoint Research

counterpoint mwc 22 5g private network


The eSIM/iSIM is happening and fast. The eSIM Summit was fantastic with great discussions from Truphone, Kigen, Thales, KORE Wireless. Some great announcements on offerings, partnerships, demos from Kigen-Kore-Energy Web to Truphone-free eSIM to chip/module makers to Thales-Adaptive Connect, Amdocs, Ericsson & Nokia as well. Also, the trend of using SM-DP+ for IoT is catching on and so is eSIM driven Digital MNOs!



While LPWAN (NB, LTE-M) have been proliferating driving plethora of IoT applications, the rollout of 5G is going to unlock multiple high bandwidth and low-latency use-cases as we saw number of 5G IoT modules and chipsets from Quectel, Thales, ZTE, Sierra Wireless, Telit and others. The key applications include automotive mobility, FWA CPEs, Robotics, Drones, XR devices and more.


♻️ Sustainability:

Great showcase and growing focus from infra vendors, MNOs, device OEMs & other players on driving sustainability from using AI to drive energy efficiencies to eco-rated devices to using discarded fishing nets to green packaging, etc.

Hot Companies: Orange, OPPO, Samsung Electronics, Apple. Telefonica Deutsche Telekom EcoAct Assurant and more..

Overall, the above themes are going to shape the technology landscape for the entire decade and the digitization, cloudification, automation trends will make the devices, infrastructure, systems and services more useful, intelligent and efficient.

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Open RAN: Again A Hot Topic At MWC in 2022

As expected, open RAN turned out to be a hot topic at MWC again this year with around 46 demos of O-RAN technology. On the operator side, there were a number of notable announcements from major legacy operators in Europe as well as NTT DoCoMo in Japan demonstrating continued progress towards more open RAN deployments.

Vodafone: 30% open RAN by 2030

Vodafone recently switched on its first open RAN 5G site, the first such site in the UK and also the first macro open RAN site in the UK.  The base station uses Samsung’s vRAN technology platform including the vendor’s own radios, with Intel Xeon based servers from Dell running a Wind River cloud platform. Capgemini Engineering and Keysight Technologies are providing the testing and acceleration. Vodafone announced that open RAN 4G and 5G antennas will be deployed from mid-2022 once interoperability tests have been completed.

Vodafone reiterated its plans to have 2,500 open RAN sites live by 2027 (the deadline for removing Huawei RAN infrastructure) and claims that 30% of all its European sites will be using open RAN by 2030.

Telefonica: small cell open RAN

Telefonica is the only other European operator to announce a major commitment to deploy open RAN. The Spanish company has announced that it will build out open RAN pilot sites in its core markets of Brazil, Germany, Spain and the UK to around 800 sites and that open RAN will constitute 50% of all new base stations by 2025. At MWC, the operator announced that it had deployed open RAN small cells in Munich, using radios from Airspan Networks, Altiostar’s vRAN software and NEC providing overall integration services. Telefonica plans to use open RAN based technology to provide densification of its 5G network in Germany.

 Orange: 2030 2G/3G switch-off target

Orange has already announced some ambitious goals declaring that all new hardware sourced by Orange in Europe should have open RAN interfaces from 2025 onwards. At MWC, the operator announced that it intends to switch-off its 2G and 3G networks by 2030. This involves phasing out 3G in Europe, except in its domestic market with 2G following by 2030. In France, 2G will be switched off by 2025 and 3G by the end of 2028.

Deutsche Telekom – open RAN mMIMO tests

Deutsche Telekom announced that it has deployed mMIMO radios using the O-RAN fronthaul specification at its O-RAN Town, a small open RAN test deployment outside Berlin. The operator is also the lead company behind a new open RAN testing lab called “i14y” with the aim of accelerating the deployment of open RAN and other disaggregated network architectures.

NTT DoCoMo: OREC and Shared Lab

NTT DoCoMo probably has the longest history of deploying open RAN having deployed the technology in its 4G networks several years ago. It now claims that it has around 10,000 open RAN base station sites as well as being the first operator to launch a commercial open RAN 5G service.

Although not physically present at MWC, NTT DoCoMo provided details of its latest open RAN initiatives, including its open RAN ecosystem (OREC), which currently consists of 13 vendor partners: AMD, Dell, Fujitsu, HPE, Intel, Mavenir, NEC, NTT Data, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Red Hat, VM Ware and Wind River – an interesting cross-section of competing vendors. The company hopes that OREC will accelerate open RAN deployments around the world.

The operator also provided an update on its Shared Lab initiative, essentially a vRAN testbed, which enables different combinations of open RAN components to be tested together. Counterpoint Research believes that NTT DoCoMo probably has more experience of open RAN interoperability testing than any other operator. At MWC, it announced that it was opening up its Shared Lab to other operators across the world. This will eliminate to need for other operators to build their own in-house labs, potentially saving time and money. Interestingly, the facility is available virtually and this was demonstrated at MWC. During 2022, NTT DoCoMo plans to accelerate its Shared Lab activities and is currently in discussions with other operators, notably South Korean operators, including Korea Telecom.


As the announcements at MWC show, there is an increasing momentum behind open RAN from some of the biggest operators in Europe and Japan, with progress being made in overcoming the key challenges of interoperability testing and integration.

Resolving other challenges, such as performance, i.e. capacity and power consumption issues, will depend upon the availability of new merchant silicon solutions, which will dictate whether mMIMO radios can be used in open RAN networks. Commercial availability (from one vendor, Marvell) is only expected to start at the end of 2022. Although providing a major performance improvement compared to current Intel FlexRAN-based systems,* it remains to be seen how these first-generation, horizontally disaggregated systems compare with the best integrated systems from the likes of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. As a result, it is likely that the majority of open RAN deployments will still be non-mMIMO deployments during the next 2-3 years.

In many cases, open RAN deployments will also depend upon the pace of 2G/3G switch-off and the need to avoid disruption to customers as legacy platforms are phased out. Hence the targets set by operators may well be missed. In addition, Counterpoint Research doubts that the cost of open RAN  multi-vendor networks will turn out to be lower than single-vendor networks, as the need for integration and interoperability testing represents significant additional costs. Cheerleaders aside, the mainstream adoption of disaggregated networks will only happen when the operational benefits and flexibility offered by open RAN (and proprietary vRAN alternatives) outweigh and compensate for the hardware, power and system integration costs, while attaining the same high-level of network performance.

*Intel is fighting back – with new initiatives on several fronts, including with Cohere Technologies!


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Cloud RAN – Waiting For A Viable Business Case?

There has been a lot of interest in cloud RAN amongst established MNOs in recent months with several of the biggest MNOs planning to launch fully virtualized commercial networks over the next two years and incumbent vendors such as Nokia, Samsung and even Ericsson planning to offer a suite of fully virtualized cloud RAN products.

Benefits of Cloud RAN

A virtualized and disaggregated cloud RAN network will enable MNOs to fully leverage the benefits of a 5G cloud-native architecture, which include scalability, network agility and automation, features essential to enable new services such as low-latency MEC services, massive IoT, etc. However, there are many challenges to overcome before MNOs start reaping these benefits. These include include a lack of fronthaul fiber capacity, performance issues, vendor lock-in concerns, network integration challenges plus an immature ecosystem.

An Emerging Ecosystem

The cloud RAN ecosystem is an ecosystem under development and it will take several years for it to mature and to offer a full range of products. Although a plethora of new telco-grade COTS servers have been announced by server vendors in recent months, a lot of the key technologies are still under development. For example, the market for hardware acceleration and network connectivity is still in its infancy. Counterpoint Research believes that a range of acceleration card options – both look-aside and in-line – and based on FPGAs, GPUs or ASICs/eASICS. will be required.  In addition, network interface cards able to meet stringent timing and synchronization specifications are required for fronthaul connectivity. Ideally, these PCIe-based cards will need to be multi-function incorporating both network connectivity and hardware acceleration on a single card. No such cards exist today.

Vendor Lock-In

All cloud RAN deployments to date are based on COTS servers using Intel’s FlexRAN architecture with or without hardware acceleration. In fact, Intel’s FlexRAN is almost the only cloud RAN chip reference architecture available commercially today. However, there are numerous alternative platforms being developed by competitors. These include ARM-based alternatives from vendors such as Marvell and Broadcom, GPU-based designs from Nvidia as well as a few RISC-V-based possibilities from start-ups such as EdgeQ and Picocom. Counterpoint Research believes that the widespread commercial availability of these alternative merchant silicon designs will be critical to commercial development of the cloud RAN market.

Incumbent Versus Open Cloud RAN

Compared to their European brethren, major MNOs in the US seem less obsessed about swapping radios and basebands and are adopting a different strategy with respect to cloud RAN. While all major US MNOs agree that open RAN will be the future, in the short-term, they believe that the best way of benefiting from open RAN is to leverage its intelligent RAN capabilities, an inherent part of the O-RAN Alliance architecture, via the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) design. As a result, Counterpoint Research believes that most US MNOs will rely on cloud RAN solutions from their existing incumbent suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia or Samsung, thereby avoiding the complexities of integrating open, multi-vendor networks.

Economics and Business Case

For established operators, the feasibility of deploying cloud RAN largely depends on three factors: the availability of cheap fiber, real estate sites (to accommodate data centers) plus a viable business case. Inevitably, this will vary from operator to operator and from country to country. Legacy telcos in countries with good fiber access such as Japan and South Korea who are able to adapt existing central office sites to accommodate cloud RAN servers are potentially at an advantage here. However, even for them the business case is not clear cut. At this time, the potential cost savings of centralizing and cloudifying the RAN remain largely unproven and hence Counterpoint Research doubts that the business case for deploying cloud RAN stacks up. Combining cloud RAN with MEC-type enterprise services may be a better bet although the MEC market itself is also a nascent and unproven market.

Cloud RAN Deployments

With China unlikely to go down the disaggregated route any time soon, Counterpoint Research believes that the options for large scale cloud RAN deployments seem limited in the short and medium term. And after spending billions of dollars, MNOs elsewhere are unlikely to rip out and replace existing 5G infrastructure. One opportunity though could be the US market with the deployment of new 5G networks in C-band starting in 2022. However, even here cloud RAN will probably be limited to a few small-scale commercial deployments (essentially trials) for the foreseeable future – at least until the ecosystem matures and the business case becomes clearer. In the meantime, big MNOs such as AT&T, NTT DoCoMo and Verizon (plus a few vendors) will continue striving to gain the upper hand in the all important PR game!

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Rakuten's Future – Operator, Vendor or Something Else?

August was a busy month for Rakuten. The Japanese company announced its first major vendor contract with German Internet company 1&1 Drillisch, launched its new Symphony telco platform, acquired the remaining shareholding in open RAN software vendor Altiostar and published its latest financial results.

Rakuten Symphony

In October 2020, Rakuten launched the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), a cloud native communications platform consisting of a private cloud platform, RAN, core and edge VNFs plus various AI and OSS-based automations solutions. With the launch of Symphony, Rakuten adds a further two layers, a BSS layer and a layer comprising a range of digital services from parent Rakuten Group (Exhibit 1). By combining all of its telco products, services and solutions under a single global banner, Rakuten is now able to offer 4G and 5G solutions to customers worldwide.

A lot of the technologies offered by the Symphony platform is derived from Rakuten itself, either directly or via its recent acquisitions. For example, Rakuten provides the horizontal cloud infrastructure platform, the systems integration skills and R&D expertise while the vRAN and OSS solutions come from Altiostar and Innoye respectively. Other technology comes from key partners such as NEC (mMIMO radios, 5G converged core), Nokia, (IMS), Mavenir (RCS), Red Hat (cloud) and Intel (FlexRAN architecture) while smaller companies such as radio vendors Airspan and Sercomm round up the vendor line-up.

Exhibit 1 Rakuten’s Symphony Telco Store

                  © Rakuten Group

One of the supposedly attractive features of Symphony is that an MNO can mix and match software and hardware components from any vendor in the Symphony portfolio. While Symphony is definitely multi-vendor, it does not seem to be very vendor neutral, although that may change with time. For example, MNOs crave a wide choice of radios. However, Symphony currently only offers one mid-band mMIMO radio vendor (NEC), one mmWave small cell vendor (Airspan) while Sercomm is the only indoor radio vendor. Nokia and KMW, the other radio vendors, only offer 4G radios.

Target Markets

As demonstrated by the recent contract award from 1&1 Drillisch, the most likely candidates for Rakuten’s Symphony telco store concept will be new entrants, particularly those companies that have little or no experience in the mobile telecoms industry such as ISPs, cable companies as well as enterprises who wish to build their own networks.

However, Counterpoint Research believes that the number of new entrants such as 1&1 Drillisch will be limited while the enterprise market will be extremely competitive with a plethora of new open RAN vendors, public cloud providers as well as incumbents such as Nokia and Ericsson battling for market share. Nevertheless, Rakuten may not need many major contracts to generate a lucrative new revenue stream.

Rakuten’s Future Role

Rakuten plans to be a major player in the global telecoms vendor market, and as mobile networks become virtualized, it has the potential to become a disruptor. With Symphony, Rakuten becomes a technology vendor, systems integrator, digital services provider as well as an MNO and mobile service provider. But where does its future lie?

Chairman Mickey Mikitani claims that revenues from the telco platform could ultimately surpass the company’s core e-commerce and financial services businesses.  Clearly, the contract award with 1&1 Drillisch is a major financial and psychological boost for Rakuten at a time when the company is haemorrhaging cash and struggling to finish deploying its 4G network while its Japanese rivals are rolling out their 5G networks.

However, Counterpoint Research doubts that Rakuten will have the product range, economies of scale as well as mind share to seriously compete against the big RAN and cloud incumbents.  Instead, it probably sees its role as a “facilitator” or platform provider (along the lines of its core e-commerce business), initially selling its own solutions plus knowledge and expertise alongside that of its core partners. The company may have a 1-2 year head start on rivals, but success will ultimately depend on what the company offers on Symphony, the cost and quality of its solutions and the business relationships it manages to strike with other vendors. Ideally, Symphony needs to offer a choice of “best-of-breed” solutions from multiple vendors. Inevitably, this will be its biggest challenge.

Although many Tier 1 MNOs will no doubt develop their own solutions, Symphony’s packaged offerings – and above all, Rakuten’s experience of running virtualized networks – may be attractive to some Tier 2/3 MNOs, ISPs, cable companies as well as some enterprises. However, Counterpoint Research expects that it will take a few years before the telco store business model establishes itself as a concept or not, and if it does, there will be no shortage of competing platforms. In the meantime, Rakuten must deliver in Germany as well as overcome the considerable commercial challenges facing its own mobile network business back home in Japan.


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5G包含丰富的元素,可以为网络运营商带来全新的业务能力。在5G网络部署的初期,运营商普遍选择了5G NSA非独立组网模式,即依托4G EPC核心网来承载新的5G NR业务。而毫米波(6GHz-110GHz)结合包括调制解调、信道编码、波束成形、天线分集在内的先进通信技术,将能在NSA向SA独立组网平滑过渡、回传网络升级和构建5G密集网络的过程中发挥重要的作用。


更多频谱应用于5G能推动5G 愿景的实现,同时释放更多的商业价值。例如,在sub-6GHz频段,5G可以提供良好的覆盖和高速网络连接,而如果将其与丰富的毫米波频段相结合,网络能力将得到全方位的提升,如多千兆级别的吞吐量、更高的容量或低于10毫秒的业务延迟,从而使能一系列创新应用场景的部署。升级后的网络在具备广覆盖优势的同时,为人口密集区域提供超大的带宽和极致的用户体验。同时,毫米波的加入还将改善网络的整体效能。在特定场景下,基于毫米波的5G SA网络表现甚至好于5G sub-6GHz NR网络,而两者的结合往往意味着更出色的网络能力。




5G Needs All Spectrum Bands

在每一次技术迭代中,电信运营商最关心的始终是如何从巨额投资中获得回报。其投资主要包括面向网络基础设施的资本支出、取得频谱的成本以及网络维护和运营所需的费用。在2G、3G、4G时代,投资回报很大程度上取决于移动终端的普及速度。与此同时,围绕消费者的移动业务也从最初的实时通信发展到数字内容消费,再到移动金融、线上购物等。凭借着更加丰富、多样的频谱资源,并结合包括AI人工智能、IoT物联网、云计算、边缘计算区块链在内的多种前沿技术,5G的大带宽将为移动业务每用户平均收入(ARPU)收入的提升带来新的机遇,并推动企业和社会的数字化转型。而融入数字化转型的浪潮能帮助电信运营商开启新的业务增长点,收回在毫米波频谱、5G SA核心网络和相关技术方面的投资。

GSMA-I(GSMA Intelligence)近期的一项研究表明,毫米波在某些应用场景下有明显优势,如人口密集的城市、室内部署和固定无线接入,部署毫米波可以显著降低5G网络总拥有成本(TCO),最终帮助运营商加快收回投资。在这些场景下,相比3.5GHz网络,使用毫米波或毫米波+ 3.5GHz网络的用户消费的数据更多。在中国和欧洲,实验表明部署毫米波频段能够为运营商节省可观的成本。

mmWave Enables Lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

此外,随着开放无线接入网(Open RAN)技术(参见此处)的兴起,电信运营商能够以更为灵活的方式组建网络,减少对传统大型网络设备供应商的依赖,并大大节省5G NR毫米波网络的部署支出,进而优化网络的总拥有成本。

例如:在日本,快速崛起的电信运营商乐天移动一直致力于建设革命性的虚拟化、云原生5G网络,并在毫米波(28GHz)频段实现了低成本高效率的5G网络部署,开始引领5G Open RAN的商用。乐天移动正在建设近8000个5G站点,其接入网络包括AirSPAN毫米波分布式射频单元(dRU),基于高通5G RAN平台FSM100xx(可为小型基站提供调制解调器—射频系统的端到端解决方案)的小型基站,以及虚拟化的分布处理单元vDU。乐天移动称构建全新的5G毫米波网络与直接采用传统供应商设备相比,设施成本降低了60%。

Rakuten 5G mmWave RAN Solutions


  • 三星旗舰手机Galaxy Note 20 Ultra毫米波版的BoM成本比sub-6GHz版仅高出10%(参见此处)。
  • iPhone 12是今年最畅销的5G手机,其毫米波版与sub-6GHz版的成本差距也远低于预期,这使苹果能够在iPhone 12和iPhone 12 Pro系列中增加OLED、UWB等重要组件(参见此处)。
  • FWA是5G毫米波的一个重要应用场景, Counterpoint预测未来十年5G FWA CPE的销量可能超过10亿(参见此处)。 成本方面,毫米波版CPE与sub-6GHz版CPE的差距也在缩小。
  • 毫米波终端成本的下降也为运营商加快商用5G NR 毫米波服务提供了更为有利的局面。




First O-RAN Private Network in Germany?

As the largest industrial market, Germany is leading the charge in advancing Industry 4.0 transformation in Europe. The German regulator BNetzA has awarded 88 spectrum licenses to local enterprises in the country to run private 5G networks since it opened applications for local licenses in the 3.7-3.8 GHz range. This is perhaps the most decisive regulatory shift for the telecoms industry for quite a while allowing enterprises to by-pass mobile operators.

Recently, the highly esteemed research institute Fraunhofer IIS announced that it is building a 5G private network based on the specifications of the O-RAN Alliance at its sites in Erlangen and Nuremburg. This will be a completely virtualized solution running on standard COTS servers and serve as an edge computing platform. The Fraunhofer network will be used as a test bed for industrial partners to test and simulate industrial grade private network applications under laboratory conditions.

O-RAN Vendors

Key vendors involved in the network include US small cells company Airspan, Microsoft’s Metaswitch and German company Siticom, which develops and manages communications and campus network solutions for large enterprises in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Airspan is providing its 5G OpenRANGE solution, an end-to-end radio to cloud native software solution running on central and distributed units (CUs/DUs). Metaswitch will supply its Fusion Core solution, a fully automated, cloud native 5G SA core solution designed primarily for campus network requirements while Siticom will act as systems integrator. Beyond the Fraunhofer contract, both Airspan and Metaswitch have partnered with Sitcom to target other Industry 4.0 use cases.

Best O-RAN Target Markets

Counterpoint Research believes that small cells and private networks are the most suitable short-term applications for open RAN and this development supports this view. In particular, disaggregated RAN architectures inherently offer flexibility to suit a wide variety of deployment requirements. This is just one of many private network announcements in recent weeks and months targeting the Germany market. For instance, vRAN software provider Mavenir is also targeting the German market via its partnership with systems integrator Mugler.

However, open RAN new entrants will face stiff competition from incumbent vendors. Both Nokia and Ericsson are launching their own cloud RAN-based disaggregated solutions which will compete head-on with O-RAN based systems. Ericsson recently announced that the main target markets for its cloud RAN solutions will be private networks, indoor environments and venues such as sport stadiums, concert venues, etc.

Ecosystems and Partnerships Vital

In addition, both vendors are investing heavily in developing vertical-specific ecosystems as well as creating prominent partnerships with big-name service providers. For example, Ericsson has developed an extensive enterprise ecosystem encompassing Industry 4.0, IoT and the automotive sector, with more than 70 partners ranging from industrial conglomerates, device and hardware players to software developers and professional services companies.

Meanwhile Nokia has joined forces with Verizon to offer private 5G network solutions to enterprises across Europe and the Asia-Pacific region which will leverage Nokia’s Digital Automation Cloud. Ericsson recently acquired US wireless WAN company Cradlepoint, which it will probably leverage to target the enterprise WAN market in Europe. The Swedish vendor also has a private networks partnership with Fraunhofer IPT, the sister institute of Fraunhofer IIS, to develop an industrial 5G research network in Europe. Known as 5G-Industry Campus Europe, it consists of outdoor and indoor private networks and will be used to test 5G and IoT applications based on Ericsson technology.

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