Who's Afraid of Interoperability?

Next Generation Communications Blog

Who's Afraid of Interoperability?

By: Mike Schabel, VP, Small Cells, Alcatel-Lucent

In our never ending quest to deliver higher capacity networks and more effectively deliver a true broadband experience to wireless consumers, our industry continuously engages in vigorous debates about new technology, architecture, and processes followed by rapid acceptance and adoption.

I only look to small cells as an example, where the industry has quickly evolved from a macro-centric view that small cells were an unnecessary nuisance, to the current view where they are accepted as necessary for scaling the network and create compelling new opportunities for network optimization, efficiency and applications. With the small cell debate behind us, we have turned to new ones: How should we use unlicensed or shared spectrum? How do we enable a centralized SON layer in the field that works across multiple vendors? How do we integrate small cells with a virtualized or cloud RAN architecture? …and the list goes on. 

One debate, which appears to have not yet achieved uniform acceptance and adoption, is around the concept of building multi-vendor networks. I have long held the position that for wireless networks to scale long into the future, it is important to leverage best in class technologies and solutions even if that means allowing for wireless networks to be built with technologies from multiple vendors.

This view most certainly goes against the prevailing model where the network is sub-divided into the RAN and the Core, and everything in the RAN for a given region, country, or circle was provided by a single vendor (mono-vendor). The typical justifications for deciding on a mono-vendor strategy range from technical to operational, but as we move from a macro network to a heterogeneous network, I believe we should challenge these long-held positions.

I’ll admit, I am heavily influenced by reading Christenson’s “Innovator’s Dilemma” early in my career, which cemented in my mind that status quo is often fiercely justified for the purpose of protecting a position, often a financial position, but we should never fear disruption and innovation if it could open a new pathway to something better. I can’t bring myself to believe that our industry will capitalize on our opportunities if we cling to our mono-vendor legacy.

For that reason, I accept multi-vendor, I push multi-vendor, I embrace multi-vendor, and I enable multi-vendor heterogeneous networks. Time and time again, we have proven in the field that technical barriers, like shared carrier, X2 interop, interference management, carrier aggregation, CoMP, SON, and even the up and coming cloud RAN architectures do not present insurmountable technical problems to handle in a multi-vendor heterogeneous network (macro and small cells from multiple vendors). Believe it or not, it can work and it does - surprisingly well. But for it to continue to work, we as an industry have to put this debate to bed and memorialize multi-vendor as the way we are willing to build networks of the future.

Recently, my team supported a hetnet ’Plugfest’ event organised by the Small Cell Forum, in partnership with ETSI, and hosted by the ORANGE Labs in Paris, where we demonstrated successfully that multi-vendor works with our small cell portfolio interoperating with macros from a different vendor, and other small cells working with an Alcatel-Lucent macro. This didn’t surprise me, because we have already demonstrated this repeatedly in commercial networks, but it was great to demonstrate this in a more open setting. I really appreciate the leadership of both the Small Cells Forum and ETSI in promoting multi-vendor networks.

I am proud to say that a number of influential wireless operators, who continuously define and industrialize new wireless architectures, are beginning to support multi-vendor hetnets through their commercial awards. And I am excited to see that new wireless entrants with wireline heritages accept multi-vendor by default, as that was their legacy. However, it concerns me that some still hold true to the mono-vendor story. Wireless operators should have the option to build a best-in-class network using innovative solutions from multiple vendors. As an industry, we cannot afford to stifle our growth.

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