Franz Seiser & Friedbert Rich: How Deutsche Telekom sees the potential and challenges of ORAN

Mobile network disaggregation or open RAN — the path to a broader multi-vendor environment that will promote competition, accelerate innovation cycles, and reduce total cost of ownership (TCO). Franz Seiser and Friedbert Rich share the motives and motivation of Deutsche Telekom to drive forward the subject of the ORAN. They offer exciting insights into strategy, lessons learned from dealing with SRAN vendors, and reveal their views on the opportunities and risks presented by ORAN.

What advantages does ORAN technology offer to Deutsche Telekom in its position as an operator?

F. Seiser: First and foremost, we expect greater flexibility, faster speed, and, at the end of the day, lower TCO from ORAN. This becomes possible because we dive much deeper into a software world with ORAN. In other words, the virtualization of the baseband and its cloudification enable us to exploit all these advantages in the RAN environment as well as benefit from the speed of cloud technologies. In concrete terms, this means that software upgrades can be tailored to specific situations and rolled out much faster. In addition, new functionalities can be tested more quickly and ultimately made available to customers much sooner.

The second factor is certainly the programmability itself. The RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), in particular, will enable us to design a more flexible radio interface and deploy services much more rapidly.

The third major factor is the heightened competition. The hope here is that this will lead to more innovations plus lower TCOs in the long term.

F. Rich: While I appreciate all the technical advantages, the third factor, competition, is very important to me. The consequence of disaggregation and the introduction of ORAN is that we at Deutsche Telekom have greater choice among vendors and heightened innovative power.

In what areas does Deutsche Telekom see a specific need for action compared to SRAN?

F. Rich: On the one hand, of course, there are the internal challenges. The greatest need for action because of ORAN and disaggregation as such is certainly the development of a new operating model. Many internal procedures and processes in the RAN sector will have to change, much will be added, and much in turn will have to be consolidated so that the benefits of ORAN can be fully realized.

F. Seiser: On the other hand, we must not forget the market side. We also have plenty of work ahead of us in the ecosystem that is now developing — also (even especially) as operators. The new players that will be entering the market in the next few years are likely to need a lot of help from us. As of today, ORAN is not yet competitive in some areas. We, the operators, must set priorities and determine the course for the market. We were just talking about competition, so an interest in numerous competitive players on the market is only logical. For one, it promotes innovation and new solutions; for another, it can enable us to reduce TCO.

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Franz Seiser is Vice President and executive lead for “Access Disaggregation” at Deutsche Telekom Group’s “Technology Architecture and Innovation” unit. In his role he is in charge of driving the development and implementation of innovative, flexible and efficient network architectures for Deutsche Telekom (DT), covering both fixed and mobile networks; nowadays Franz has a very strong focus on open RAN, leading DT’s efforts to develop it towards a competitive deployable solution.

Friedbert Rich is Head of Super Squad RAN at Deutsche Telekom Group. He has the program role of Radio Acess Disaggregation and the Lead of Deployment & Operations.

What strategic issues must be considered in this respect?

F. Rich: Let’s look back at the target operating model, or TOM for short, as one of the main challenges. Strategically, the following key question logically comes to mind here: make or buy? The new TOM will be expected to mirror the ideal mix of in- and outsourcing. As operators, we have to decide what parts of the added-value chain we want to assume ourselves and how much responsibility, e.g., for system integration, we want to outsource. The strategic questions under consideration here must be weighed carefully as the consequences of emphasizing one side or the other will naturally have a fundamental impact on processes and activities.

What can an operator do to foster an innovative ORAN ecosystem?

F. Seiser:

As I see it, there are two paths of action that must be prioritized in this respect. One is the necessity to gain the support of SRAN suppliers for ORAN. Our particular focus here is on the major European suppliers. Their competitiveness is very much in our interest, not least because we believe that Europe can play a worldwide pioneering role in this sector in the future.

Another, the second path of action, is the importance of generating strong incentives for new market players. Otherwise, it will not be possible to secure the substantial investments required for the development of innovative products. We must act in concert with the other European network operators to demonstrate how united we are in our unwavering commitment to ORAN and how a completely new market is being created in which the new players will be able to participate in the future. Deutsche Telekom is driving this forward with initiatives such as the i14y Lab in Berlin, which provides developers with a non-proprietary environment for the development and testing of innovative open RAN solutions. We are as well, however, part of the ORAN Alliance and have signed a clear letter of intent in the form of an MOU on ORAN with Europe’s largest network operators — Orange, Vodafone, Telefónica, and TIM — that is further powerful evidence of our interest in this topic. Only the joint commitment of all participants can create the competition that will ultimately benefit everyone concerned.

F. Rich: Moreover, being a leading telco, we must not take the easiest and cheapest route now, especially in the early stages. An ORAN ecosystem needs strong partnerships if it is to be viable — with network operators and suppliers. In our role as operators, we must manifest our willingness to invest and develop tomorrow’s solutions in cooperation with our partners. Only through mutual give and take will it be possible to develop the innovations that are needed to make ORAN competitive.

What are the opportunities and risks of a new operating model for the introduction of ORAN?

F. Seiser: The opportunities can certainly be found in expanded control and significantly less dependence on large manufacturers. It will be easier to introduce new innovations if we ourselves have a firm grip on the reins. This will be accompanied by massive new demands on us and our employees, however. The risk here is clearly that we will not succeed in acquiring the necessary skills and establishing the required processes quickly enough. As an operator, I must bluntly ask myself whether I can reach the required velocity for implementation of the essential changes while at the same time being aware that I will have to learn and adapt “on the go” — and all under pressure to achieve a high level of efficiency.

F. Rich: We are fully aware that RAN technology will change fundamentally in the next few years — completely independently of disaggregation. And that also means that we have to start thinking today about what our operating model of tomorrow will look like and how we will work together in the future. We are talking here about new ways of working, but they must first be established in an organization. ORAN, in conjunction with virtualization and cloudification, can be an opportunity to drive this change step by step.

The interview was conducted by