As open RAN continues to gain momentum worldwide, doubts about the newish concept have emerged in India and other markets still reliant on older technologies. Aiming largely at the 4G and 5G markets, open RAN players have tended to overlook mobile's earlier generations.
The 2G and 3G standards remain popular in India, despite a growing base of 4G users. While the number of 4G subscribers is set to exceed 800 million by March next year, according to the Crisil rating agency, more than 300 million connections still rely on 2G technology.
There is less concern about 3G. Bharti Airtel has already discontinued its 3G service, while Vodafone Idea plans to switch off its 3G network by the end of the current fiscal year. Reliance Jio, India's market leader, operates only a 4G network.
But 2G will probably coexist with 4G and 5G for a long time, and not just in India. The GSM Association, a trade body, reckons 3G will account for 14% and 2G for about 7% of all phones used in 2025.
Yet Airtel and Vodafone Idea are both interested in open RAN, which would allow an operator to use different vendors in the same radio access network. They have already carried out Indian trials. Vodafone Group, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the early investors in open RAN globally and sounds eager to increase its use of the technology. Media reports have suggested that Jio is developing its own open RAN stack, which it plans to deploy in its own network and sell globally.
Even so, experts are unconvinced open RAN is a panacea for the problems service providers face in emerging markets. It is geared mainly to 4G and 5G, say critics, while India and other emerging markets still have a strong need for 2G and 3G.
"Open RAN is not a solution that can replace existing networks in India one-to-one," says John Strand, the CEO of Danish advisory firm Strand Consult. "It is not a technology that can substitute for 2G and 3G. Another question is whether Indian operators want to replace existing 4G equipment and establish a set of parallel basestations, for example one set running 2G and 3G and another 4G and 5G."
With a second network built on the same site, rental and energy consumption costs could rise significantly.
Ashwinder Sethi, a principal at consulting and analyst firm Analysys Mason, voices similar concerns while recognizing open RAN's appeal. "End-to-end deployment of open RAN is not possible in most of the networks," he says. "It offers significant cost benefits while reducing dependency on a few vendors. Even if it is not entirely possible right now, open RAN is definitely the way forward."
Operators claim open RAN will produce alternatives to Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia – the big three equipment vendors – by allowing other companies to focus on specific hardware or software elements. The injection of rivalry, they hope, will lower costs. But not everyone is convinced.
"Operators frequently reduce the number of vendors to improve security, with their ability to vet vendors and develop trusted relationships, and to lower cost, with their ability to secure volume discounts," says Strand. Work with a different vendor for each part of the network and those benefits could fast disappear.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading