The growing pains of open RAN
NEW YORK CITY – OPEN RAN NORTH AMERICA – Mike Murphy, Ericsson's CTO for North America, cited estimates during his presentation here that open RAN (radio access network) technologies will be used in roughly 40% of the world's radio systems by 2030.
That means a majority of the market – the remaining 60% – would still be serviced by traditional, proprietary RAN technologies at a time when 6G is expected to hit the market.
Murphy's presentation sought to put the open RAN trend into context. It's a technology that, in just a few short years, has captured an outsized portion of the global 5G conversation.
Upstarts like Dish Network, Rakuten and Mavenir hope to use open RAN principles to disrupt the market, while established players like Ericsson and Verizon tread a careful line between promoting open RAN and protecting their existing investments into traditional, classic RAN.
Concurrently, open RAN has captured the imagination of some policymakers as a hedge against the problem of network equipment from China. Regulators across the US, the UK and elsewhere hope that open RAN can foster the development of domestic wireless equipment suppliers, which would block the rise of China's Huawei.
Along these lines, the UK, Australia, Canada and the US this week announced an official teaming on "telecommunications supplier diversity." The move essentially represents adoption of the UK's Open RAN Principles in support of "fostering a diverse supply chain and influencing the development of future telecommunications technologies such as 6G."
Will it grow fast enough?
The announcement helps to underscore the momentum behind open RAN, but it also highlights questions surrounding the technology. Even after years of development, open RAN still has not had a major impact on a market that remains dominated by traditional RAN from established vendors like Ericsson and Nokia.
According to research and consulting firm Dell'Oro Group, open RAN has been enjoying better-than-expected growth and is now projected to account for 6% to 10% of the RAN market in 2023. But it's not clear whether those figures are good or bad. Is the open RAN glass half full or half empty?
Or more accurately: "Is it going to grow quickly enough to make a dent? Is it going to take 6G to make it happen?" wondered Roberto Kompany, an analyst with research and consulting firm Omdia, which is owned by Light Reading's parent company, Informa.
It all depends on who you ask. Here at the Open RAN North America show, John Baker, a loud open RAN proponent with vendor Mavenir, argued that the relatively modest progress the technology has made so far represents a significant opportunity for smaller companies like his.
Baker later took aim at his bigger rival, Ericsson, in a LinkedIn post referring to Murphy's presentation. While Ericsson's Murphy said his company remains supportive of open RAN in general, Baker argued in the post that Ericsson presented "half truths and negativity."
Such disagreements are not surprising. Open RAN would presumably help shift some of Ericsson's market share to other vendors like Mavenir. But only if operators see a reason to move.
Dish has been persuaded. Dave Mayo, who heads up the buildout of Dish's 5G network, has referred to top traditional vendors like Sweden's Ericsson and Finland's Nokia as the "Swedish mafia."
Dish's VP of 5G technology, Said Berrahil, said here at the show that open RAN is one reason why Dish has been able to deploy advanced network testing technology. He boasted that Dish's new 5G open RAN network can now conduct continuous, automatic testing that will allow it to quickly and easily deploy new technologies and network slices.
"Open RAN is not meant to be managed by humans," Berrahil said.
Verizon is taking a more cautious approach. Several of the company's executives spoke of their interest in open RAN here at the show, but the company has stopped short of pledging to deploy it.
Verizon has said that its new 5G deployments with vendor Samsung are compliant with O-RAN Alliance specifications. And executives with Verizon and Ericsson said here that they have tested open RAN acceleration technologies. As a result Verizon prefers the "lookaside" architecture for advanced open RAN radio processing.
But Mark Watts, a member of Verizon's technical staff, said the operator would only shift to open RAN when it discovers a reason to integrate "best-of-breed" products from different vendors.
Finding reasons to say 'yes'
Companies betting on open RAN – or at least strongly encouraging it – offered a variety of arguments in support of the technology at the show.
For example, executives from both Cisco and Airspan spoke of the potential for open RAN to support private wireless networks. They argued that open RAN could give enterprises looking to build their own wireless networks flexibility and security. The executives also stressed that open RAN vendors could be as reliable as established vendors of classic RAN equipment.
Another hot topic: Open RAN's energy savings. That's not a surprise given a growing global focus on energy savings amid a tightening supply of gas and electricity in some parts of the world.
"Energy is clearly one of those [open RAN] use cases," argued Sindhu Xirasagar, senior director of RAN software solutions for chip vendor Intel, which has emerged as a major silicon supplier for open RAN equipment.
Xirasagar said that open RAN designs can support services including "micro sleep" for RAN equipment, to lower energy usage. She added that Intel expects to release additional energy-saving products next year, but did not provide details.
From operator to vendor
Another potential open RAN driver for operators might not even involve their own network operations. Some service providers are looking to capitalize on their open RAN learnings by selling platform services to other companies looking to build open RAN networks.
Japan's Rakuten is already doing this via its Rakuten Symphony operation. And Docomo's Sadayuki Abeta, global head of open RAN solutions, suggested the Japanese operator might do the same. He did not elaborate, nor has Docomo announced any formal business offering that would sell open RAN services.
Regardless, executives at some open RAN vendors privately grumbled about the development. From their point of view, operators looking to profit from the sale of open RAN platforms are cutting into the sales opportunities of the vendors who supported their open RAN efforts in the first place.
Such dilemmas are perhaps not a surprise. After all, open RAN remains a relatively new and untested approach to 5G and potentially 6G. In this nascent market, today's partners might become tomorrow's competitors. That's the difference between a mature market and one that's still in its infancy. That's also what happens in an innovative industry.
- Network operators focus on energy savings as costs soar
- Mavenir unhappy about chip prices for smaller open RAN players
- New silicon may speed up open RAN and spoil Intel party
— Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano