Open RAN adoption is accelerating but it will be primarily a rural solution for the next two to three years, says Hong Kong wireless specialist Comba Telecom.
The company, which sells wireless and antenna systems, has already supplied kit to two commercial open RAN projects and is running multiple trials in markets around the world.
Marie Ma, senior director of technical marketing and solutions, said that after a delay caused by the pandemic, the company's first open RAN deployments went live in the third quarter.
She says one reason for the rural-first approach is because the new virtualized kit lacks the feature set of the traditional gear.
Most open RAN baseband units (BBUs), she points out, can support 2T2R or 4T4R and maybe 2CA, abbreviations that denote the quantity of transmitters and receivers and the number of carrier aggregation channels.
"I would say it's not as advanced as the main equipment vendors, but it depends on how you are going to use it or where are you going to use that. For rural coverage, that's perhaps sufficient."
The other reason is that operators tend to be cautious about embracing new or disruptive technology.
"I think most operators will start deploying and testing in rural areas. That's a very natural move."
With commercial deployments now in the field, demand is picking up, she said.
But operators such as Vodafone and Telefónica see open RAN as a mostly rural solution in the coming two years and are unlikely to migrate to urban areas before 2023.
"In the next two years I would say that, except for some greenfield or special cases, most of the deployments with traditional mobile operators are going to happen first in rural sites."
In Comba's view, the two main differences between open RAN and traditional technology are the virtualization, using x86-based hardware, and the open interface to ensure interoperability.
Ma doesn't think integration has been an issue in the trials and commercial rollouts to date but admits the deployments have been "time-consuming."
Comba has been working on open RAN solutions since 2018, partnering with major software vendors such as Parallel Wireless, Mavenir and Altiostar.
"We were one of the first vendors to have completed integration. It's the same for our BBU partners.
"Our strategy is we make a radio product that meets operators' requirements, and we also adopt open standardized interfaces."
Comba also has been working with several of the groups in the Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP), with trials underway with operators in both Europe and Brazil.
She says the TIP process is helping to accelerate maturity of the emerging open RAN ecosystem.
— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading