open RAN

Heavy Reading's Gabriel Brown: An outlook for the open RAN ecosystem

There's been a lot of discussion about open RAN in the past few weeks on these pages and next week there's going to be – wait for it – EVEN MORE DISCUSSION.

Light Reading's Open RAN Ecosystem Symposium kicks off Tuesday, Dec. 8 and picks up again on Thursday, Dec. 10. That's two full days, with a day of rest in between, of open RAN discussions, case studies, cautionary tales and service provider perspectives.

The keynotes and panels will include execs from Vodafone, Rakuten, Verizon, Docomo and Deutsche Telekom. The whole shebang is moderated and chaired by Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Mobile Networks & 5G, Heavy Reading.

Brown said that the original idea of open RAN was to make for a more competitive ecosystem. By modularizing the RAN system, you invite more competitors, and more competitors might lead to more competitive prices. "And you can have specialists in particular domains or product areas, and through being specialists, they can deliver a better product for a better price. And so, therefore, everything, you know, is better."

But the devil is in the details, as ever. Brown also points out an "enormous R&D load on the vendors to develop the technology." When you add in that R&D investment, plus the ability to address different markets and carrier sizes, plus the support people to help carrier customers, plus the sales costs and so on, the financial picture gets hazy. "If you think about it, actually you disaggregate all of that, and then you recompose it, it's not clear that you're going to save like a lot of money directly in the initial phases, and a lot of operators anticipate their costs may rise a little. That seems hard to avoid."

In our discussion, Brown tackles where exactly service providers can find savings by using open RAN, and we add some context to the discussion of whether general-purpose O-RAN kit is actually less expensive than what is on offer, at scale, from big vendors like Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.

What's coming up in the O-RAN scene in 2021? Brown said he's not sure that next year will suddenly see a spate of acquisitions as larger vendors snap up O-RAN specialists. What we should keep an eye on, he said, is the market support for O-RAN that comes from the silicon ecosystem and components vendors. "What comes out of the silicon ecosystem is going to have a huge impact on the performance of open RAN, the cost point, how practical it is to build these things, but I think that takes a few years to come through," Brown explains.

This is definitely a market where some positive developments are stacking up, Brown said, but it will be a slow and steady progression. "I think the right timeline to view it on is a sort of four-to-five-year timeline," he said. "I think next year continues to be primarily trials, scaling the trials, more operators doing trials, some moving into production networks, you know, live networks. I think we'll see a few networks with brownfield open RAN deployed in the next year. But I don't think [next year] is where it all takes off."

Phil Harvey, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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