Open RAN: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Article By : John Walko

5G operators doubt the open concept is ready for prime time⋯

Few would argue that the biggest story in mobile communications over the last year has been the embrace of openness, most notably open radio access network, or O-RAN.

The ability to integrate, deploy and operate RANs using components, subsystems and software from diverse and multiple sources, then connect them over open user interfaces, has made significant progress from a technical standpoint. That promise is providing a key to unlock the numerous interfaces used in today’s mobile networks, including Common Public Radio Interface and the LTE X2 interface.

For good (and occasionally not so beneficial) reasons, O-RAN has also become mired by politicization in many regions, notably in the U.S. The shift toward open networks has also raised concerns over security risks for mobile networks.

A confusing list of Open RAN-related industry groupings and coalitions has muddied the waters. Meanwhile, overt Huawei-bashing for political goals is largely misguided since the Chinese telecom equipment giant signed onto many of these groups and owns crucial IP in several technology categories.

Then there are breathless predictions by industry analysts about the promise of O-RAN, along with unrealistic deployment timelines. Add to all that, potentially significant intellectual property implications.

The harsh reality is that as far as many important mobile carriers are concerned, the technology is simply not ready for prime time.

Despite those doubts, many operators remain supportive of deployment efforts and see potential long-term benefits from “open” mobile networks. Still unclear as just how open 5G networks will be using existing and proven technology and equipment.

As Robert Finnegan, CEO Three UK, among its largest operators, stressed in late December, the carrier is in no position to swap out even more equipment following a government edict to jettison existing Huawei gear.

More recently, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady made similarly pragmatic noises about O-RAN technology. Malady backed the concept of open networks, but the carrier but does not view it as an immediate solution.

Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s networking head, noted at an investor event late last year that there are still many unanswered questions regarding Open RAN, especially around IP, system integration and reliability. On the latter point, Ray warned that in the event of a network outage carriers would be forced to contact many separate suppliers. There would be single port of call.

Ray added T-Mobile supports open standards and open interfaces, but the commercial model behind O-RAN has yet to be nailed down.

Similarly, a policy statement issued by the 5G Americas trade association in November acknowledged the momentum toward openness, but “the truth is that the Open RAN discussion is not quite so simple.”

The group stressed: “Wireless companies are trying to manage several issues, such as: potentially increasing network latency, reliability and availability, new hardware/software requirements, complexity and automation issues, virtualization and security considerations and interoperability among different network components.”

Not exactly what companies developing much of the underlying technologies and architectures for Open RAN want to hear, including Mavenir, Altiostar, Parallel Wireless, Fujitsu and NEC.

Indeed, Open RAN proponents are also increasingly frustrated by suggestions that the technology is open source. This is a fallacy.

The specifications were developed by the O-RAN Alliance over several years, and are based on the exact same licensing scheme used by the 3GPP mobile broadband standard—that is, a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing model.

The “politicization” of Open RAN was most overt with establishment last May of the U.S. Open RAN Policy Coalition—as if the Open RAN bandwagon needed yet another association. The group emerged after U.S. politicians promoted establishment of a $1 billion fund to promote R&D. The proposal specifically excluded Chinese players, as well as Nokia and Ericsson.

Little has been heard from the coalition since, its precise role is unclear, as is its contribution from a technical standpoint not already being provided by groups like the O-RAN Alliance.

Neither has much been heard lately from the O-RAN program within the Facebook-inspired Telecom Infra Project, whose early work represented a significant contribution to the technology and the ongoing debate around openness within mobile infrastructure.

In mid-January, four of the biggest and arguably most supportive European operators—Telefonica, Vodafone, Orange and  Deutsche Telekom—joined forces to lobby for funding to help launch Open RAN start-ups.

The group has endorsed Open RAN as their technology of choice for future radio access networks.

Vodafone has outlined commercial deployment plans for some 2,500 sites in the U.K. over the next six years. Telefonica has also confirmed Open RAN will play a major role in its network rollouts over the next few years.

The only carriers actually deploying Open RAN technology thus far are so-called “greenfield” carriers, most notably Rakuten in Japan and to a lesser extent Dish Network in the U.S.

Rakuten suggests its RCP platform can reduce capex for operators by up to 40 percent. Rakuten’s business model makes the underlying RAN connectivity layer as accessible, affordable and agile as possible. That allows it to offer a variety of network services.

The Open RAN train—thus far steam-driven—has definitely left the station, but where and when it might arrive remains unclear. There are many technical and political issues to resolve, suggesting the engine of telecom innovation is unlikely to be electrified anytime soon.

As January closed, five of the lobbying groups joined forces in a sort of ‘coalition of coalitions’ since they felt the need was vital “for responsible policy action in support of Open RAN.“ The groups are the US led Open RAN Policy Coalition; the Telecom Infra Project (TIP); the GSMA; BSA/The Software Alliance; and CableLabs.

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