By Abdul Rahman, consultant at Detecon
Open RAN aims to benefit from the many advances in radio access technologies in the past decade such as virtualization, cloudification, multi-tech single RAN (2G/3G/4G/5G) and adds on top the open interface aspect. That means having no vendor-lock in - the possibility of more than one vendor for RAN - and having the flexibility and freedom to pick and choose suitable hardware and software vendors.
As of now, the whole radio access network is supplied by just one vendor for almost all operators worldwide for a given region - unless an operator still hasn’t moved to S-RAN. Depending on the operator strategy, it may have one or more vendors operating its radio network. The negotiation power for the telco operators in a market with very few vendors diminishes. This has been exacerbated due to a ban on Chinese vendors in many markets. The only lever operators usually have is to swap an additional RAN region with the equipment of the (more) cooperative vendor.
Open RAN is changing that. Now operators can move from a single or multi-vendor strategy in a mobile network to a multi-vendor strategy for each mobile base station. That brings many opportunities as well as challenges for telcos.
Flexibility in radio access networks
Now, imagine having the ability to choose suitable hardware and software for radio access networks from a range of vendors. It gives telcos the negotiation power back as there are several small vendors with their specialized offerings in the open RAN arena. For example, one of our clients (an operator) encountered a challenge during one of the biggest swap projects in Europe; the vendor responsible for the swap was unable to deliver a specific radio because of their internal supply chain issues. Due to vendor lock-in, our client could not simply order that radio in the same frequency band from another vendor. Open RAN changes that completely. Due to open interfaces, a radio can simply be ordered from another vendor and integrated. For baseband software, swapping a vendor then becomes as easy as a software update.
But this flexibility comes at a cost, which is added complexity and a higher integration effort.
Complexity and integration effort
However, we must consider the increased complexity arising from having a dozen vendors (if not more) only in RAN. This colorful mix of vendors would exponentially increase the integration effort and more resources will be needed. The management of Open RAN demands new platforms and skillsets for the required orchestration and automation in the network. This all would result in increased costs, especially in the first network modernization (transformation) cycle.
Every time a new radio is integrated with an open BBU or a CU/DU, it takes a considerable integration time. This radio should be managed and must sync closely with the baseband. Power saving mechanisms (among others) need to be implemented and aligned between the CU/DU and the radio, which also requires additional effort. Here, extensive standardization can play a very important role.
There is also the challenge of effective operation and maintenance of the network. How would the fault management be carried out? Would a single integrator/orchestrator take this role? How would the coordination between different vendors take place? Especially when it is hard to figure out, who is responsible for a failure in the radio network? For Open RAN to be successful, a high degree of automation is a must, as telco operators cannot afford to employ more people to run the same network due to the added complexity.
Then, there is the opportunity for increased innovation. A 5G network, unlike legacy networks, is poised to have diverse use cases that lie beyond high bit rates. A full-fledged 5G network needs not only the coverage and capacity layers but also the edge and managed latency layers for use cases such as autonomous control and AR-VR applications among many others. The product and feature requirements are so diverse that it is practically impossible to be provided by a single telco vendor.
Traditional telco vendors are trying to go beyond the typical connectivity offerings by offering solutions such as campus networks etc. However, we see the sprouting of an eco-system just like an app store where the software community will play a very important role. Open RAN, therefore, acts as an enabler for the startup scene to bring innovation directly to the heart of the telco industry without worrying about any hardware, networking, or radio expertise.
This opportunity is a win-win for all sides including traditional telco vendors. Some might argue why traditional vendors? It is because innovation benefits everyone. They can also follow suit and innovate!
The future of telcos is “open”
Most of the telco vendors have already committed to Open RAN. The remaining few telco vendors understand that operators wish to go open in their next modernization cycles. They have a simple decision to make, either to go open and take part in this wave of innovation in the radio access networks or be left out completely.
The future of RAN is “open”. Time will determine the extent of this “openness”.