Open RAN hits its awkward teenage years

Some operators have been stepping forward in open RAN. And some companies, like Fujitsu and Samsung, appear to be reaping the benefits. Others, like NEC, are not.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

March 6, 2023

8 Min Read
Open RAN hits its awkward teenage years

MWC23 – Just a few years after publishing initial open RAN specifications, proponents of the technology today have a fair amount to show for their efforts. Operators like Verizon, Dish Network and Deutsche Telekom are moving forward with some early deployments. And vendors like Fujitsu and Samsung are touting growth.

But other companies remain on the sidelines. AT&T – a company deeply involved in the development of initial open RAN interfaces – has so far articulated no clear plans to actually put the technology into its massive US network. And NEC – a Japanese vendor that bet heavily on the open RAN trend to help it to expand internationally – so far has little to show for the company's efforts.

"The growth of open RAN has been slower than anticipated," David Cohen, head of global marketing for NEC's 5G solutions, said at the recent MWC Barcelona trade show.

He said NEC is testing its open RAN equipment with a major, unnamed US mobile network operator. But so far the company hasn't managed to score the actual, commercial equipment supply deals outside Japan that it had hoped for when it embarked on its open RAN expansion strategy roughly two years ago.

"O-RAN is maturing," explained Neville Ray, T-Mobile's outgoing networking chief. "I think some of the vendors have matured ... I think the O-RAN team is maturing."

Ray's fresh comments on open RAN are noteworthy considering he voiced some serious concerns about the technology in 2020. At the MWC show last week, Ray said open RAN was not yet ready for prime time when T-Mobile first developed its initial 5G plans roughly three years ago. But he said the technology has improved since then, and now it's worth a "more serious" look.

Forward steps

"We certainly have come a long way with open RAN," said Cisco's Jonathan Davidson during a recent media event at MWC Barcelona. He argued Cisco was a loud, early proponent of the technology. "We should be proud of where we are."

Davidson pointed to operators like Rakuten and Dish that are proving out open RAN. And he said the technology is increasingly making its way into bigger, established operators. For example, in the US Verizon recently confirmed that it's "requiring suppliers to our C-band network deployment to provide equipment that includes open RAN specifications." Ericsson and Samsung are Verizon's two main C-band equipment suppliers.

Others agreed. "This topic is no longer a hobby. It's a realistic discussion," said Tareq Amin, a top Rakuten executive, at a company event at MWC. Amin is architect of the company's mobile network in Japan and its growing work to sell open RAN technologies worldwide.

Figure 1: (Source: PriceMinister on Flickr CC2.0) (Source: PriceMinister on Flickr CC2.0)

Amin explained that, in the early days of open RAN, there were plenty of questions about whether the technology would pass the financial and technological requirements necessary to see the light of day. Now, though, questions mainly surround when operators will deploy open RAN, rather than if they will at all.

And that momentum appears to be aiding at least some vendors.

"Open RAN is ready for deployment at scale in both greenfield and brownfield environments," Mavenir CEO Pardeep Kohli wrote on LinkedIn at the start of MWC. "We had over $100 million revenue in open RAN last year."

"The potential beneficiaries of O-RAN adoption could include Samsung, CommScope, Mavenir, Casa and Fujitsu," wrote the analysts at Raymond James in a note to investors regarding the MWC show. They added: "Fujtisu sounds constructive regarding its developing O-RAN pipeline, and has begun its expansion efforts into Europe with sales hires."

Ostensibly open RAN

However, there remain worries that early open RAN movements are more show than substance. For example, big vendors like Nokia and Ericsson continue to pledge support for the technology, but critics argue they're actually working to slow the adoption of open RAN in order to protect their traditional, classic RAN sales.

Some analysts see that as a possibility – but not necessarily the only thing going on.

"For the conspiracy theorists, there is a view that the group of European operators used O-RAN as a stalling tactic to avoid the costs of removing Huawei networks," the Raymond James analysts acknowledged, pointing to ongoing criticisms regarding the pace of open RAN in Europe. But the analyst argued that recent open RAN commitments among the likes of Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom would seem to "dissuade this thinking."

Nonetheless, some open RAN proponents continued to warn against the concept of "open RAN ready" equipment. Such equipment might sport the capability to run open RAN interfaces, but it doesn't actually allow operators to mix and match equipment from a variety of vendors. After all, that's what the technology was specifically developed to do.

"Don't make the mistake of adopting the new technologies in a way where nothing else changes – economically, operationally, business results. You will have been 'RAN washed,'" wrote Rakuten Symphony's Geoff Hollingworth in a recent LinkedIn post.

During the MWC show, a number of attendees argued Dish's new $1.2 billion agreement with Samsung actually is a step back for open RAN. They said Samsung is supplying much of the technology necessary to manage its radios, making the entire setup look more like a traditional RAN setup from one vendor than an open RAN implementation with multiple vendors. For their part, Dish executives have pushed back against that viewpoint.

Further, after this article was published, Dish and Samsung issued this statement: "Dish has collaborated with Samsung and Fujitsu to support the integration of Samsung’s vRAN software with Fujitsu’s radios as part of the network launch described in Dish's announcement on February 22nd (in addition to integration of Samsung’s vRAN software with Samsung radios). The multi-vendor Open RAN approach is a key element in the DISH Wireless network today and going forward."

According to the Raymond James analysts, other operators are working to embrace the spirit of open RAN and not just its specifications. " We heard suggestion that Verizon is seeking another vendor to source O-RAN compliant radios from in addition to Ericsson and Samsung," they wrote. Verizon officials have largely shied away from confirming, or denying, such rumors.

Hopes vs reality

"We remain fully committed" to open RAN, said NEC's Cohen. He explained that he and Patrick Lopez, NEC's global VP of 5G product management, were hired by the Japanese vendor to take its open RAN products to network operators globally. He said the company expected the open RAN trend to open doors among such customers.

But he said NEC has failed to win much business, including with Dish. He said NEC will continue investing in new products and services to break open the opportunity. For example, he pointed to NEC's MWC announcement with Japan's Docomo and Amazon Web Services (AWS) for a 5G core.

NEC isn't the only open RAN proponent facing struggles. Parallel Wireless is working to move beyond layoffs last year with a message around technological innovations, whether they are open RAN or not. "Open RAN is a means to an end, but not the end," explained CEO Steve Papa recently.

Mavenir too has shed employees, but the company hosted a sizable booth at the MWC show. The situation raised some eyebrows among analysts. Mavenir officials declined to discuss the company's financial situation with Light Reading.

But of all the vendors pursuing open RAN related revenues, Samsung appears to be the one to watch. The Raymond James analysts argued that Samsung "is both a challenger and a scale player," and therefore has managed to capture a fair amount of whatever open RAN business there is in the industry. Vodafone (in Germany and Spain) and Dish (in the US) are among Samsung's latest open RAN wins. Samsung is also now a supplier to Comcast in the US.

Waiting for the wave

A big question for open RAN proponents is exactly when operators will shift spending from classical RAN to open RAN. Ray, of T-Mobile, said that the operator decided against implementing open RAN when it launched its massive 5G network upgrade program in 2020. Many other early 5G operators made similar decisions at that time.

A second potential open RAN catalyst hit the market in 2022, when the Indian government issued more spectrum for 5G. However, operators there have so far shown little interest in implementing open RAN in their early spending.

Nonetheless, some operator executives continue to promise that there is a wave coming that open RAN surfers will be able to catch.

"There's going to be another window and another investment cycle in which we can introduce those technologies," AT&T's Igal Elbaz said at a MWC event, according to RCR Wireless.

But he didn't say when that would happen. He said AT&T continues to test open RAN technologies.

Ray said that T-Mobile too is testing open RAN technologies. Might T-Mobile's next big 5G upgrade program in 2024 – covering almost $14 billion worth of midband spectrum – involve open RAN? Or will open RAN vendors need to wait until 6G before they see a significant upswing in demand?

Only time will tell. As a result, open RAN appears set to stay stuck in its teenage years for the foreseeable future.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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