Nokia is jumping on the extensible radio access network (xRAN) bandwagon by becoming the first legacy RAN vendor to join the xRAN Foundation, a consortium formed last year to develop and promote the virtualization of the RAN and the use of open standards.

Nokia’s membership in the group is significant because it signals a major shift in the strategy of the equipment vendor. Most RAN equipment makers have downplayed the notion of xRAN. And with good reason, according to Iain Gillott, founder of iGR. The RAN is the most expensive part of building a network, accounting for more than 70 percent of the cost of the network. “The virtualization of the RAN is a big deal,” Gillott said.

Deutsche Telekom is a founding member of the xRAN Foundation. Other operator members include AT&TSK Telecom, Verizon, and Telstra. Gillott said the fact that these large operators are involved in the xRAN group means that there is building pressure on traditional RAN manufacturers like Nokia to change their ways.

While the large RAN vendors may be reluctant to explore xRAN, that’s not stopping smaller vendors. Mavenir Systems is a member of the xRAN Foundation, and it has been working on an open standards-based xRAN architecture. The company recently acquired Brocade’s virtual evolved packet core (vEPC) technology and is combining it with its C-RAN assets to create a virtualized next-gen core and access network that can also deliver at the network edge.

Gillott said that it looks like Mavenir has the right strategy at the right time, and Nokia’s membership in the xRAN Foundation just validated the company’s business model.

But Nokia also could serve as a fierce competitor to Mavenir. “Running big networks is hard,” Gillott said. “And radio is the hardest part because of physics.” That may mean that operators will find a lot of value from Nokia’s legacy expertise in the RAN.

On the other hand, some operators have shown an affinity for working with smaller vendors. Gillott cited AT&T’s Domain 2.0 project as an example of a large operator opening the door to new vendors, particularly smaller companies.

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