Calculating the impact of Open RAN

  • Despite headwinds and challenges, the Open RAN effort – still in its pre-commercial phase – has made phenomenal progress over the past year or two
  • So where other emerging technologies have been hit by chip shortages, Open RAN advocates claim to be gearing up for serious deployments during 2023 and 2024
  • We offer some important takeaways from TelecomTV’s Open RAN Summit

The Open RAN community had a heart-stopping moment in late June when one of its leading aspiring Open RAN software vendors, Parallel Wireless, announced that it was going to execute what one former employee described as a “mass layoff”. The company claimed the move was in response to disappointing industry engagement for its own offerings in the midst of often anaemic trial deployments. The number of expected redundancies has not been announced.

Coincidentally, the drama came around the time of TelecomTV’s Open RAN Summit.

Analysts pointed out that Parallel’s move to “right-size” its Open RAN effort was a sensible response to a telco market that has, so far, been slow to adopt Open RAN in the face of various challenges, despite political calls for it to diversify its supplier base. In other words, the vendors were not at a cliff edge but were, as Rethink analyst Caroline Gabriel wrote in a special report Open RAN ups and downs, displaying signs of “post-hype turbulence”.

But make no mistake, players and most observers are increasingly positive about Open RAN’s prospects. Mavenir, for instance, has been doing rather well, bagging a lead supplier deal with US mobile operator, Dish Network, to build out its network using Open RAN. In a video interview with TelecomTV’s Ray Le Maistre, Mavenir’s chief marketing office, Stefano Cantarelli, claimed its success with Dish is “providing real-world proof that significant progress has been made [with Open RAN]”.

And there was plenty more positive input from the summit, as well as some feedback on what needs to change.

Questions, questions

A major feature of the annual TelecomTV Open RAN Summit are the daily aftershows where questions from the online audience are fielded by a panel drawn from both telco and vendor communities.

An early question for the Day One Aftershow panel asked it to identify the “most important objective for Open RAN”.

Constantine Polychronopoulos, vice president of 5G and telco cloud at Juniper Networks, said the overall goal was to get new technologies into the RAN and to do that, three things needed to happen: The RAN needed to be disaggregated; open application programming interfaces (APIs) must be written to enable all the separate bits to work together; and the final key was the adoption of the radio intelligent controller (RIC), which he described as the brains of the radio. “If we get those three done, the ultimate goal will be right next to us,” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but the progress over the last year or so has been phenomenal.”

What about innovation?

One of the objectives for the industry overall is to use Open RAN to inject more innovation in the hope that differentiation between operators might emerge and enable the market to better serve particular industries. The thing about Open RAN, said Francis Haysom, principal analyst at Appledore, is that it can serve as a means to making us think about tailoring the RAN to specific use cases. “For instance, the needs of handover and spectrum management within a private network are very different from those of a typical national operator.” The problem, he says, is that we don’t know what the options for innovation are, but Open RAN provides an opportunity for the industry to dabble and ultimately find out.

What’s the holdup?

Any perceived lack of progress can often be of the industry’s own making, according to Rimma Iontel, chief architect of the TME technology, strategy and execution office at Red Hat. Iontel weighed in on the debate about legacy attitudes exhibited by both vendors and operators, which she sees as a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, barrier to progress for Open RAN. “We are seeing a lot of talk but not much action… when it comes to adapting to the new ways of developing things,” she said. Top of the list is the tendency for operators to “reuse a lot of stuff” that they’ve already bought and paid for. So, when it comes to new software and its new ways of doing things, they tend to run into problems with both deployment and upgrade processes and, in many cases, “basically slide back to a business-as-usual model,” she maintained.

“Also, telcos aren’t built to buy disaggregated RAN,” added Appledore’s Haysom. “With Open RAN, you’re “bringing lots of things together that don’t have that automatic single ownership,” and therefore lack a “single throat to choke,” contributing to the problem of assigning vendor responsibility for things that go wrong. “This is a challenge that still needs to be overcome,” he concluded.

What’s the most important focus area for Open RAN?

Top of the list, according to our online poll conducted during the Open RAN Summit, is total cost of ownership (TCO) and whether it can be made better, and by how much, than an equivalent conventional RAN TCO. Obviously, with so many factors and tradeoffs, it’s hugely difficult to compare costs overall, but there are areas that should yield concrete TCO improvement. “There’s an opportunity to lower platform costs by using commodity hardware,” said Haysom. In addition, attention can be turned to the use of “private or even public cloud in terms of costs to deploy and – in particular – costs to scale.

“A lot of the TCO [improvement] will not just be about minimising costs today, but about providing an opportunity to do something more: to be more relevant to particular enterprises or use cases.” If Open RAN deployment leads to new capabilities and to the consequent ability to gather more revenue by offering a particular enhanced service, that has to be factored into the TCO calculations, he says.

The above questions and answers set the scene for deeper dives into Open RAN and its progress. We’ll feature more insights from the Open RAN Summit Aftershows in the coming weeks.

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