Open RAN – still a work in progress

  • Open RAN isn’t quite ready for mass market adoption
  • But it will be 
  • Industry experts discussed the compelling reasons for its adoption during TelecomTV’s Open RAN Summit
  • The consensus is that the RAN market will evolve over time, but it will be a steady process (which may not suit everyone)

The Open RAN movement may be experiencing a ‘hesitancy’ moment as the industry’s crystal ball gazers highlight slowing demand for telco services and its equipment vendors trim their sails (and sales) in anticipation of a period of reduced network investment. This is not an environment likely to produce boundless enthusiasm for a highly complex network technology and the warning signs are there: 2023 was expected to be the year when multiple operators would announce so-called brownfield Open RAN rollouts but these have failed to materialise; and some of the biggest supporters of Open RAN are taking only relatively small initial steps while the various pieces of the disaggregated architecture puzzle fall into place – see Deutsche Telekom preps commercial Open RAN rollouts, Vodafone starts swapping Huawei gear for Open RAN systems and Virgin Media O2 picks Mavenir for Open RAN rollout.

Such trends led research house Dell’Oro Group to note recently that spending on Open RAN had dipped slightly year on year, though that blip in the growth line had been expected.

It is increasingly clear that complexity is making it difficult to deploy an Open RAN at an acceptable level of reliability right now. As a result, while not suddenly saying an outright ‘no’ to Open RAN, some telcos are muttering, “Not quite yet, thanks. We need to iron out the kinks before we make specific investment plans.” 

After all, they have more pressing challenges to deal with, such as how to turn 5G from a money pit into a revenue generator – see 5G reality bites hard in South Korea

So what are the Open RAN kinks and headwinds and how should they be addressed? Fortunately we’d assembled a collection of industry experts at our Open RAN Summit to help us find out. 

Running over two days, the summit heard expert testimony from the likes of Francisco Martin Pignatelli, head of Open RAN at Vodafone, Richard MacKenzie, distinguished engineer at BT, and Francis Haysom, principal analyst at Appledore Research, to name but three. We also activated our usual enthusiastic online audience who always pose pointed questions and help the speakers to remember not to lapse into partisan hype (not that any of them would). That audience also helps to highlight where the sector needs to focus its efforts – see Open RAN sector still needs to focus on TCO models – poll result.

Two days of open Open RAN discussion produced two fruitful sessions: One focused on ecosystem diversity, the second on the critical importance of the RAN intelligent controller (RIC) as the main route to straightening out the kinks and settling the Open RAN environment down for steady technical improvement. 

To recap, the Open RAN is supposed to enable smooth generational network change. It will do this through disaggregating the monolithic cellular technology stacks developed by the major vendors by breaking them up so telcos can mix and match different vendors’ offerings to meet their particular needs. However, Open RAN’s slow specifications progress is serving to highlight just how difficult it is to ‘disaggregate’ and then horizontally re-integrate the highly complex technologies involved. The lesson is: Ecosystem diversity may allow telcos to differentiate, but it also brings with it a multitude of problems. 

So why do it?

There are many reasons. One often cited is the need to create a darwinian dynamic. Having Open RAN separate the various cellular technologies – antennas, radios, baseband units etc – into modules and enabling them to talk to each other via standard interfaces, means in theory that the most successful modular technologies will be adopted more widely and the mix may change over time. The current framework risks the environment ossifying into a couple of high-priced defensive technology camps. 

Then there is the national strategic imperative to diversify the technology supply chain. Having just a couple of big providers is probably not the best way to support and develop a critical national infrastructure.

Which might be fine unless you happen to be one of the two or three giant technology suppliers apparently facing dismemberment. But, in fact, many observers maintain that the industry’s big suppliers will continue playing a key role in an Open RAN world, albeit one where they wield less control. According to Appledore’s Haysom, the Open RAN effort isn’t about fostering a new fixed ecosystem, “It’s about the management of the functioning ecosystems evolving with new use cases, new solutions through time.”

“As such,” noted Haysom, “there is no reason why you could not have a fully integrated solution [such as one from Nokia or Ericsson] with an Open RAN interface. We actually believe the whole marketplace will become ‘open’; it will become an open RAN. We think [today’s] major players will remain the major players in Open RAN using Open RAN interfaces.”

The implications here are profound. If things develop as planned, it’s possible that those major players will start to see the benefit of divesting what til now may have been key in-house capabilities in favour of using specific modules from other vendors for their own integrations where it makes sense to; or selling modules to other integrators where they have an advantage. This is the same sort of dynamic that’s seen some telcos, for instance, sell off their masts – the ambition being to narrow focus and spend more money and effort doing the things they do best. 

“We see a second opportunity for new players,” continued Haysom. “Maybe the NECs or Rakuten [Symphony]s of the world which, in similar ways, are providing integrated solutions,” will take market share. Beyond that he sees little scope for major gains for other players. 

“The vast majority of CSPs [communications service providers],” he says, “actually just need solutions that deliver the 3GPP 4G and 5G standards, typically for mobile broadband.” 

But that doesn’t mean the big suppliers will get away scot-free. According to Vodafone’s Pignatelli, the choice facing telcos is not whether to go multivendor or not. “It’s whether we have the flexibility to get into multivendor,” if and when the need arises. Just having the interfaces available, he suggests, means operators like Vodafone can start to loosen up their vendor relationships. “Traditionally, you would have a very big contract that keeps you with a supplier for six or seven years – now you could give the digital unit, say, to one supplier for a couple of years for a number of sites, and then you run a tender and get another one and so on.” 

That changes the power balance and presumably lowers the price too. Freeing telcos from RAN lock-in was originally advanced as the major driver for Open RAN and no doubt is still seen that way.

As Pignatelli maintains, however, it won’t mean a mad rush to the bottom with price being the only determinant; other things matter when it comes to long-term relationships between supplier and telco. As a result, it’s probable that over time under Open RAN, a flexible equilibrium will be maintained between the desirability of stable integration and the need for disruptive innovation capable of introducing new technologies and capabilities into the mix. 

You can check out all that Pignatelli and the many other speakers had to say in our online archive of the summit’s sessions

But the sector is still some way off that equilibrium, though the expectation from many is still that it will arrive – for some operators during their 5G deployment period and for others, such as SK Telecom, as the next generation of mobile infrastructure (aka 6G) is deployed. Hence the view from seasoned industry watchers that current challenges will ultimately be overcome – see ‘Bumpy’ Open RAN sector can overcome its challenges – analyst.

In the meantime, there’s plenty for the sector to be working on: In the second half of this Open RAN Summit report we will focus on the discussions that took place at the summit about the RAN intelligent controller (RIC) and the absolute necessity of it if the RAN is to advance. Stay tuned.

- Ian Scales, Managing Editor, TelecomTV

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