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Telcos cannot scratch the open source itch

Operators are still scratching at open source and apparently not much closer to finding relief.

Cheerleaders who often make lots of money from code that is supposedly "free" insist it will reduce costs, aid standardization and make operators look more like the Internet giants they grudgingly admire.

But it festers in the bowels of the industry as the Googles and Amazons grow larger.

Confusion over what is and what is not open source hardly helps. Strictly speaking, it means code that is freely contributed to the developer community, with no demand for royalties.

Yet Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (TIP), often regarded as one of the industry's biggest open source initiatives, rarely adheres to this principle.

Light Reading this week re-examined the charters of 12 product project groups within TIP. Nine of them permit licensing on reasonable, fair and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms the same approach the big vendors have followed for years.

Table 1: TIP working groups

CategoryProject groupRAND or royalty-free?
Access project groupsCrowdCellRAND
Open CellularRoyalty-free
OpenRANNot clearly specified
vRAN fronthaulRAND
Wi-FiRAND
Transport projectsmmWave networksRAND
Non-terrestrial connectivity optionsRAND
Open optical and packet transportRAND
Wireless backhaulRAND
Core and services projectsEdge application developerRoyalty-free
End-to-end network slicingRAND
Open core networkRAND
Source: Telecom Infra Project.

Those companies were criticized for their apparent aversion to open source during this week's Broadband World Forum (BBWF).

"We could have more support from classical incumbent vendors, which usually wait on the sidelines," said Manuel Paul, a senior standardization expert at Germany's Deutsche Telekom. "Instead of letting operators define and drive it all, they could jump in and help along the way."

Nothing is free

Proprietary has become a dirty word in the industry, just as open source is held up as something pure and virtuous. But it is not just the classical incumbent vendors that have reservations.

Franck Spinelli, the CEO of a network startup called Amarisoft, has been an outspoken critic of the insistence on free. He has just been invited to carry out a paid-for trial of his technology by Tareq Amin, the chief technology officer of Japan's Rakuten Mobile.

"It's the first time I see an operator understanding nothing is free on earth," he responded during an open exchange with Amin on LinkedIn.

Smallish suppliers of open RAN, a fashionable new technology, also expect to earn money from their smarts.

The O-RAN Alliance, a group developing the open RAN specifications, is no royalty-free bash, according to John Baker of Mavenir, a prominent open RAN software developer. As with many of TIP's working groups, its various contributors license their technologies on RAND terms.

Mavenir itself, in a recent filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, noted that its success "depends to a significant degree upon the protection of our software and other proprietary technology rights." It has a portfolio of 579 patents and 70 pending applications.


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That troublesome word "open" has much to answer for. Open RAN, open core and open optical are not synonymous with open source, and yet they are often conflated.

Recent geopolitical developments have sown further confusion. The UK government has set up a task force to "encourage an open telecom supply chain," said Paul Gunning, a principal researcher at BT, during a BBWF session about open source.

But the government's main goal is simply to nurture 5G alternatives to Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, and it has singled out open RAN as a potential answer.

Depicting the big vendors as rip-off merchants, open source fanatics have a greedy eye on the industry.

"[Companies] like Facebook, Google and Microsoft have a different motivation when they design hardware," said John Laban of the Open Compute Project, another Facebook initiative, during the BBWF.

"They design it to minimize things they don't have the same hat on as a vendor or manufacturer and consequently get rid of lots of rubbish, lots of dross." Go this way and the cost savings are dramatic, he said.

Which throat to choke?

Really? After civil engineering, which cannot be open sourced, most industry expenditure goes toward the mobile access network. As the equipment vendor with the broadest product portfolio outside China, Nokia is a good shortcut for demonstrating this.

Last year, nearly two-thirds of its equipment revenues came from the sale of mobile access products. And radio products would have accounted for a huge chunk of those. Open RAN might undercut this business. To much of it, open source will have little relevance.

Even where it matters in the network, operators may have to pay for it in support costs or subscriptions.

Red Hat, an open source evangelist now owned by IBM, made a juicy $1.1 billion in revenues from its cloud services for the June-ending quarter, about 17% more than a year earlier. That is a rate of growth most purveyors of proprietary goods have not seen in years.

Almost by definition, open source also means taking stuff from a variety of different players, instead of entrusting all to one vendor. That has led to much fidgeting by service providers.

"There is a one-stop shop and if you go to disaggregation where do you apportion blame when something goes wrong? Who is the throat to choke?" said Gunning.

"These are legitimate questions we have to look at." The scratching persists.


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