In a panel session held on July 15, representatives of network equipment suppliers touted the advantages of open radio-access networks. Getting there will take time involves risk, including too much hype.
If you follow 5G news, you hear every day about open RAN (radio access network). With open RAN, access to baseband functions that take place between 5G radios and core networks would open through standardized interfaces. On July 15, GSMA Intelligence aired “Open” for Debate – the Open RAN Market in 2020, a panel session featuring:
- Thierry Maupile, executive VP, strategy and product management, Altiostar.
- John Baker, SVP business development, Mavenir.
- Sandro, Tavares, head of mobile network marketing, Nokia.
- Steve Papa, founder and CEO, Parallel Wireless.
- Peter Jarich (moderator), head of GSMA Intelligence.
The session opened with a discussion of “do we still need to explain Open RAN?” The consensus was “yes.” As Tavares noted, “We’re still seeing confusion among virtual RAN, open RAN, and cloud RAN, and it’s not just among journalists and analysts, but with operators as well.”
“Open RAN doesn’t mean open source,” added Baker. The “open” part comes from a proposed standard, in development by the O-RAN Alliance, to standardize software interfaces between segments of the RAN. The intent is to let carriers pick and choose portions of the RAN that are currently encapsulated in a cell site’s baseband unit (BBU). The “disaggregation,” according to the panelists, would also let multiple companies compete to supply the baseband components in the baseband segment of the network between the radio and the core.
With the Chinese forced out of the picture,” Baker added, “we’re looking at a duopoly.” Some governments want network operators to not only install non-Chinese BBU’s but to go so far as to remove and replace then with equipment from other suppliers. The “duopoly” companies are Nokia and Ericsson, though Nokia supports open RAN.
“The benefits of open RAN go beyond capex and opex,” said Nokia’s Taveres. “The flexibility will let operators add value in the form of apps. Open interfaces could result in an app store for networks.”
Altiostar’s Maupile added “An open architecture gives carriers more flexibility. Operators can place the components — radio unit (RU), distribution unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU) — wherever in the network they want. That flexibility will bring in more players and increase competition, which will reduce costs.”
With the current BBU model, not only to some carriers face a duopoly, but all operators effectively get the same thing. An open RAN interface between the RU, DU, and CU means carriers can better customize to meet user needs. “If CPRI (common public radio interface) were open today,” said Baker, “we could use it today.”
Papa stressed the innovation advantage of open RAN interfaces. He used a common analogy where imagine you have a car with a built-in navigation system that disabled the navigation apps in your phone. I certainly wouldn’t like that.
While the panelists touted the advantages of an open RAN, they acknowledged that switching to it involves risk. As Maupile noted, “Open RAN is not just a technology issue. It’s also financial. Operators won’t get more revenue from consumers. Open Ran has to show that it will reduce costs over proprietary systems.”
“No one will invest in open RAN unless it lowers total cost of ownership (TCO),” added Tavares. “We need to deliver on key performance indicators (KPIs), service level agreements (SLAs), and price. We don’t yet have data to prove that, but we will.”
Papa also noted that Chinese equipment providers are focused on TCO. “We have to focus on the enemy,” he said. “We need interoperability to force innovation and drive down costs.” He didn’t, however, mention that any attempt at interoperability involves testing and the industry will need to develop test procedures and perhaps need independent third-party test labs to verify standards compliance and interoperability. Test-equipment companies are now adding open RAN testing as part of specifications developed by the O-RAN Alliance. Indeed, open test & integration centers (OTICs) are now coming online, as VIAVI’s Owen O’Donnell explained in Load Testing: An important function in open RAN deployment.
“We need to compete with the Chinese,” Baker stressed. “Lowering costs and improving innovation must benefit the consumer. We have lost sight of them.”
Open RANs will take several years to appear in the wild. Unless ordered by governments, carriers will likely not incur the costs of removing new 5G equipment with equipment that supports open interfaces just for the fun of it. Over time, as upgrades are needed, carriers seem more likely to embrace open RAN, even if they call for it now.