What can we learn from Open RAN?
ORAN, O-RAN, Open RAN. An emerging technical concept and business paradigm which is riding on such huge trends as virtualization and generic processing platforms, cloud native and open source, just to mention a few. It brings benefits that are diverse ranging from healthy business environment and optimized radio network performance to enhanced customer experience and vertical-specific applications. That is what you see in the media.
Yet, the takeoff seems to take more time than envisioned in the early phases of Open RAN introduction. One may ask why if the advantages are so lucrative? At this stage it is not possible to rigourously analyze or measure the claimed benefits, let alone prove them correct. However it is becoming evident that wide scale deployment of Open RAN is not as easy as one could hope.
First, there is the business domain. Open RAN appears to be somewhat late for 5G, particularly in developed markets, where initial 5G investments and deployments have already been made. This is not to say that 5G is ready, quite the contrary, as we will see it evolving through the 2020's. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the existing equipment will be replaced by Open RAN technology. Thus, the viable opportunity could be the so called greenfield markets. Examples include private networks, small cells, possibly on higher Frequency Range 2 bands and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). And of course there are the less developed regions where 5G remains unopened. The challenge herein lies in the fact, that the business cases are more or less uncertain, perhaps excluding FWA in the more affluent countries.
Related to business prospects, there are open questions regarding the Open RAN ecosystem. Evidently and quite openly, one of the goals is to break the current dominance of a few mobile network vendors. New aspirants include companies from all walks of communication industry. Some of them have their background in wireless and hardware development while others have focused around core networks and software. And naturally current second tier network vendors are interested in the opportunity.
Here one cannot avoid stepping slightly into the technology field. Physical layer processing of wireless signals is calling for heavy-duty real-time processing which appears somewhat challenging for general purpose computing platforms. Subsequently some hardware acceleration is probably necessary. This leads to the need to avoid lock-in to a single or few processor vendors. And one cannot avoid the question of necessary learning curve for companies from the software domain.
Role of the System Integrator
Open RAN also creates a completely new role: The system integrator. This is the party that brings components from different vendors together, verifies their functionality as an integrated network, and validates the performance. This is not a simple task requiring significant laboratory investment and disputes around responsibilities may be expected if something goes wrong in a live network. Therefore, system integrator is not necessarily the most attractive role in the ecosystem, albeit a critical one.
Lastly, for Open RAN to fulfil its promise on performance, technical challenges must be taken seriously. Throughout the evolution of mobile networks from one generation to the next one, enhanced capabilities, performance and efficiency have been the central goals. The price for this has been the ever increasing complexity of basic technologies, network protocols and components as well as the whole network as a system.
5G itself has introduced a new dimension to consider: Beam processing. This, combined with the move towards higher radio frequencies and wider signal bandwidths, means that building and verifying Open RAN functionality is not enough. One must also ensure that the network performance is on par with or better than with the traditional monolithic RAN approach. A new network component, the RAN Intelligent Controller, is being promoted as the tool for this but the jury is still out on this topic.
Having said all that, is there something we can conclude? Perhaps we can agree that Open RAN will assume a role in the 5G world. At the same time, we can speculate that this will not happen overnight but through a learning process of some years. We also come across an interesting question: What will this mean from 6G perspective.
Standardization of 6G will likely start in 2025 or 2026, ITU will decide on guidelines for 6G frequency bands in 2027 and commercial 6G networks are expected towards the end of this decade. This looks like a feasible time frame to absorb the learnings from 5G Open RAN. Bearing in mind the trends stated in the beginning, perhaps openness of RAN technology and business will be among the guidelines for 6G. This could then be the direction in standardization, regulation and business creation from early on.
So in summary one could ask: Perhaps 5G Open RAN is a prototype of 6G?
Business Development Manager