The outlook for open RAN is positive, with real signs of momentum over the past year, according to the latest Heavy Reading Open RAN Operator Survey. Overall, operators and the wider RAN ecosystem are making steady, rather than spectacular, progress.
The first question in the survey was designed to help understand how operator sentiment toward open RAN has changed over the past year, in light of better knowledge of the technology, experience from trials, the increased maturity of solutions and changes in the policy environment. The figure below shows just over half (54%) of survey respondents say their company has not changed the pace of its planned open RAN rollout in the past year. There has been movement in the other half, split between those accelerating their plans (20%) and those slowing down (27%). This volatility essentially cancels out, and the overall finding is therefore that operators as a group are working at a steady, measured pace toward open RAN.
A steady outlook is a positive outlook at this stage of the market because it recognizes that open RAN is a major change in RAN architecture and is a long-term, multiyear exercise. After several years of inflated expectations, it is encouraging to see a measured perspective on open RAN coming to the fore.
Another area of interest that helps gauge sentiment toward open RAN development relates to operators' preferred use cases. The figure below reveals that operator intentions for how they will use open RAN are varied. Asked to select their top three use cases, 81 respondents representing 39 operators placed a total of 294 votes for an average of 3.6 per respondent, showing that there is no single open RAN use case or deployment scenario that stands out. Urban small cells (62%), private enterprise networks (57%) and venues and other gathering spots (also 57%) lead the responses.
A positive way to interpret this finding is that open RAN is being pursued across a broad base of mobile communication scenarios. Once these models solidify and become "product ready," then the market might see widespread adoption. Over time, open RAN could become the predominant mode of operation.
A less positive analysis, but one nevertheless worth considering, is that open RAN is a technology still in search of a solution. That is, the industry has committed to open RAN, and now it needs to find ways to make it work. Pursuing a diversity of use cases will help identify which are most promising and warrant investment and deployment at a wider scale.
It is notable that operator preferences for open RAN use cases have not changed much since Heavy Reading's first survey in 2018; the same three use cases also led at that time. This reinforces the key message that open RAN progress is steady and consistent.
To download a copy of the 2021 Heavy Reading Open RAN Operator Survey, click here.
— Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading
This blog is sponsored by Cisco.