Indosat Ooredoo has rocked up at the open RAN party, announcing plans to carry out trials of the headline-grabbing technology in some of the least developed parts of Indonesia.
A subsidiary of Qatari incumbent Ooredoo, the operator said it would run field trials before April this year in partnership with the GSM Association, a trade body for the mobile industry, as well as the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which is developing open RAN technologies.
Indosat has also promised to set up a TIP Community Lab in Indonesia in the second quarter, saying this will be the first in Southeast Asia. That lab will be opened to other TIP members and Indonesian telecom players for the testing of products.
Details remain thin, including the names of any suppliers that Indosat plans to use during the trials, but the move seems partly an attempt to spur local players and uncover alternatives to the traditional kit vendors.
It is a further sign of growing telco interest in open RAN technology and follows announcements about activities by major telcos, including Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone in recent months.
Open RAN proponents aim to replace the interfaces used in most of today's mobile networks with new specifications that promise greater interoperability. This should, in theory, allow an operator to use radio access network components from various suppliers instead of buying everything from the same vendor's ecosystem.
Enthusiasts believe the technology will spur competition in the RAN market, which is currently dominated by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia following years of takeover activity. US officials have even seized on open RAN as a potential answer to the Huawei problem, positioning the technology as an alternative to the controversial Chinese equipment maker.
It seems likely to play a bigger role in less developed markets like Indonesia because it is said to be cheaper than traditional technology but less advanced.
In Japan, e-commerce giant Rakuten says capital expenditure for its commercial open RAN network is just 40% of the investment required for a traditional cellular network. Last week it unveiled prices that sharply undercut existing tariffs, saying it wanted to pass open RAN savings onto consumers.
But many operators are wary because the technology is largely unproven, especially in more developed markets where data usage has soared in recent years. Ericsson and Huawei, moreover, have argued that open RAN does not match their customized systems on performance.
Alex Choi, Deutsche Telekom's senior vice president of strategy and technology innovation, agrees that general-purpose gear presents some higher costs but reckons these could be offset in areas such as radio resource management, following successful trials with Intel, VMware and Cohere Wireless.
Critics say the mainstream vendors are resistant because they see open RAN as a threat to their existing business.
If commercial deployments and trials in countries such as Japan and Indonesia prove successful, pressure on the big kit vendors is bound to grow. Choi says the market would benefit from their involvement. "Definitely, if we have bigger vendors like Nokia and Ericsson on board, then everything can be accelerated," he told Light Reading during a recent interview.
Nevertheless, open RAN is clearly an opportunity for smaller players, including startups in countries that have not previously had a strong equipment-making sector.
"Indosat Ooredoo has a similar vision with the government to create an effective and equitable digital ecosystem throughout Indonesia and encourage the emergence of local players," said Ahmad Al-Neama, the CEO of Indosat, in a statement about today's open RAN move. "We hope this collaboration will accelerate the creation of a healthier industry and improve the digital economy and better life for the people of Indonesia."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading