Disaggregated and open mobile communications networks, in accordance with Open RAN specifications, follow an accelerated development process, with new and satisfactory feasibility tests being carried out by their promoters. The market for Open RAN-based networks is expected to reach a very significant size by the end of this decade, with about half of all new installations in 2030, although many issues remain to be resolved, including information security. transmitted and the energy consumption of open networks, apart from their international standardization.
In recent weeks, Open RAN developers have taken various actions to demonstrate the feasibility and accelerated progress of open and unbundled mobile network specifications, with a view to their deployment in increasingly large and complex environments. In mid-May, the main European telecommunications operators published a document and a list of priority technical requirements for Open RAN systems.
The document, signed by the European operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TIM, Vodafone and Telefónica, provides a detailed description of the requirements of the Open RAN ecosystem, in accordance with the memorandum (MOU) that they signed on January 18. This is a list of technical requirements that the Open RAN MOU signatories consider a priority for the Open RAN architecture, as indicated in the executive summary of the technical priorities document.
The main European operators have published a list of Open RAN technical requirements, which guides and promotes an open, disaggregated and non-fragmented network ecosystem
The main objective of the European operators is to “serve as a guide and promote the development of a non-fragmented Open RAN ecosystem and roadmaps for developers, while ensuring that Open RAN reaches parity with the best traditional network solutions. existing link (RAN) ”. Special attention is given to achieving “a competitive Open RAN ecosystem of European technology providers and systems integrators, strengthening the European RAN industry”, as highlighted in the first paragraph.
The wish of the operators is that the deployment of Open RAN solutions for large networks can be carried out from 2022 and it is specified that the deployment in large network infrastructures (macro networks) is a primary objective for the operators. In other words, operators do not want to spend a lot of time seeing numerous pilot tests of the feasibility and proper functioning of Open RAN networks, but rather they want them in commercial and large networks as soon as possible.
To avoid any confusion, however, it is clarified that the executive summary and technical priorities “only indicate the areas where the operators consider that further standardization is required, but do not define any Open RAN standards.” They remember that “standardization will be subject to established standardization bodies, such as the O-RAN Alliance.” Which, in turn, although they do not mention it, must be adjusted and approved by the 3GPP, the body that standardizes 5G networks, and all patent holders in the event that they are not part of the O-RAN Alliance or have given its explicit compliance, as appears to be the case with Huawei.
Likewise, European operators consider that the key interface to be developed is the Open Fronthaul, the connection between the baseband unit and the radio headend in a disaggregated link network suitable for multiple providers, including massive MIMOs, as an initial task. for early macro-level deployments. And for Open RAN to be competitive with traditional link networks, operators “require solutions that do not compromise network quality, security, high energy efficiency, support for 4G and 5G networks both SA and NSA, as well as to have efficient and shared link networks and the support of the previous frequency bands ”.
Open RAN networking market on the rise
The growth forecasts for the Open RAN network market for the next few years are high, above what was forecast a year ago. The consultancy Dell’Oro now expects the turnover of Open RAN networks to be between 500 million and 1 billion dollars this year, given the results of the first quarter, a figure that is almost double that forecast at the beginning of year, when the consultancy calculated a turnover of 1% to 2% of the global RAN market for Open RAN this year.
Stefan Pongratz, analyst and vice president of the consultancy Dell’Oro, bases the best expectations of Open RAN on the migration that is taking place in Japan towards open networks, especially by Rakuten Mobile and macro networks. In contrast, Pongratz does not see as much enthusiasm among US incumbents or even Europeans.
The American consulting firm Analysys Mason, commissioned by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the association that coordinates all the development of Open RAN, has produced an extensive report on “the economic impact of open and unbundled technologies and the role of TIP”. As is foreseeable, the consulting firm sees favorable economic prospects derived from Open RAN and its estimates suggest that “Open RAN could add 285,000 million dollars to world GDP in real terms in the next ten years, from 2021 to 2030, in addition to 19,000 million in real surplus in terms of consumption ”.
Open RAN proponents in the United States see it as an opportunity to build a strong American industry, although the NTIA, which advises President Biden, wants less talk and more equipment and software to test.
Starting in 2030, Open RAN could add $ 91 billion annually to global GDP. In the following graph, extracted from the report, various assumptions of GDP growth are given based on the greater or lesser success of the Open RAN ecosystem throughout this decade. It is noteworthy that, despite the many assumptions planned in the report, the penetration level of Open RAN will be very similar in all countries, be they rich, poor or developing. What will vary, mainly, is the general adoption rate in the coming years: from 85% of Open RAN subscribers at the end of 2030 in a very fast adoption scenario to 25% in a slow scenario, going through a little more than 50% in a moderate setting.
Throughout the report it is clear that the take-off of Open RAN, regardless of its intensity, will occur in an accelerated manner from the second half of this decade, between 2026 and 2030, and especially the last two years, to already have a very firm foundation early in the next decade, already with an advanced 5G or a pre-6G. The most likely scenario handled by the consultancy is a “slow but steady” adoption of open and unbundled network solutions, which it is assumed could outperform proprietary solutions around 2028.
In the model used by Analysys Mason for its estimates, it is considered that Open RAN networks will have only limited benefits in terms of operator costs, because they have wanted to be conservative. The main benefits, in the opinion of the consultant, are “the creation of a more robust and competitive supply chain that responds to the needs of operators and lower prices for open and unbundled solutions in the market.” This, she adds, “could mitigate the cost of mobile networks with more features, resilience and security that will be needed in the near future.” For the consultancy, the role of TIP (its client) is key to bringing together all members of the industry and accelerating the development of a critical mass of open and disaggregated products, as summarized in the following graph of the same report.
Different vision on the other side of the Atlantic
The vision of Open RAN in the United States is quite different from that promoted by European operators and their main vehicle for specification development, TIP (initially from Facebook). While Europe wants to achieve greater competition between suppliers while strengthening the European industry (in practice, that Ericsson and Nokia make open networks and they will continue to buy from them), the main interest of the United States Government is that the American industry telecommunications equipment has a large presence in the world market and, especially, in the United States.
On March 18, the FCC, the US regulatory body, sought the opinion of operators and suppliers of telecommunications equipment and software regarding the opportunities and challenges presented by Open RAN, through an extensive Notice of Inquiry. Predictably, the answers depend on the circumstances of each company and how the development of Open RAN may affect them, especially what the FCC ultimately decides and if a state budget fund is approved to promote it.
Nokia and Ericsson have highlighted, in their separate responses to the FCC, their explicit support for Open RAN, as members of the alliance, and note that both are actively involved in the development of its specifications. However, both have been very forceful in demanding neutrality from the FCC. Nokia notes that the FCC “should continue to be technologically neutral and allow individual service providers complete freedom to make their choice of network architecture.” Ericsson argues that the FCC should not interfere and that “using regulatory mechanisms to accelerate Open RAN deployments to the detriment of existing ones (…) could harm the leadership of the US network and increase the digital divide.”
The three major US operators have, in general, also been reluctant to intervene by the FCC and are of the opinion, with nuances, that the development of Open RAN is still very green and there are many years to go, in any case, to that disaggregated and open networks can be installed on a large scale. The most critical operator with Open RAN, as expected, is T-Mobile US, because it currently has the most 5G spectrum and a broader network in operation, so it is already good for things to remain as they are.
The alternative manufacturers driving the development of Open RAN, the vast majority of which are American, naturally want more involvement from the FCC in their cause. The most enthusiastic is Mavenir, who has also used his response to the FCC to flatly reject that Open RAN systems are more expensive, in response to a report compiled by Widelity from multiple sources. Widelity argued that there are multiple cost estimates, some more expensive than others on both sides, and that one thing is the list price and another is the actual price, adjusted to specific demands.
The new virtual network operators, such as Rakuten Mobile and Dish, logically ensure that their systems save a lot of costs. And the large US software manufacturers, such as Intel, Cisco, IBM, HPE, Google or Microsoft adopt a prudent stance, while highlighting the great advantages of managing networks from the cloud and through software, in a way virtual. The “cloudification” of networks is a trend that works for both open and closed networks, so its role can be more neutral.
NTIA wants more deeds and fewer words
It is not clear what role the FCC will play in this matter, nor that the responses obtained are of much use, beyond the fact that it is extraordinarily complex. As if that were not enough, in recent months it has become excessively politicized, some consider, and they want to present Open RAN as a great opportunity for the US industry to be sovereign in telecommunications. There is also a lot of money at stake, because the budget to replace Huawei and ZTE equipment in alternative telecommunications networks in the United States alone amounts to 2 billion dollars. Ericsson and Nokia want access to this replacement program, but so do Open RAN equipment suppliers such as Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.
On May 27, the Wall Street Journal published, in a special supplement on 5G technology, a cover article with the suggestive title of “The U.S. Is Back in The 5G Game “and the highlight of” if US companies become large suppliers of 5G equipment, they can play a greater role in setting global standards in telecommunications equipment. ” The proponents of Open RAN still celebrate this article and the great role that US software and hardware manufacturers such as JMA Wireless, Airspan Networks, Altiostar, Mavenir, JMA and Parallel Wireless play in the matter.
n the end, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), dependent on the United States Department of Commerce and chiefly responsible for advising President Joe Biden on telecommunications and information policy issues, has made a public announcement to provide prototypes or commercial Open RAN hardware and software to verify the actual status of Open RAN technology. NTIA’s request has been interpreted to mean that the agency is fed up with hearsay and controversy and wants Open RAN supporters to teach concrete and verifiable solutions for rigorous evaluation. Or that they shut up until they don’t have them.
Those who praise so much the developments of the American industry in terms of Open RAN (whatever its precise definition) forget that the most cutting-edge companies in this matter are based on the other side of the Pacific, with companies like the Korean Samsung, which has won a juicy contract to supply conventional 5G equipment to the US operator Verizon, and the Japanese NEC, Fujitsu and NTT DoComo, also very active in unbundled and open networks. Cone is also the case of Nokia and Ericsson, whose top managers do not lose occasion in proclaiming that, when the Open RAN specifications are ready, they will be among the first to put them on sale and at a very competitive price.
Vodafone will build the first Open RAN in Europe
Yesterday, without going any further, Vodafone issued a statement in which it says that “it has selected strategic partners to build the first Open RAN commercial network in Europe.” Among those selected are Dell Technologies, NEC, Samsung, Wind River, Capgemini Engineering and Keysight Technologies. Samsung will be the reference software provider and Samsung and NEC will provide the massive MIMO network, along with radio units from Samsung and Evenstar. As the statement clarifies, Evenstar’s radio units are part of a joint effort between Facebook and Vodafone to create radio units without their own brand within the TIP and “are a key component for the success of Open RAN.”
This announced network will be built in the new Open RAN laboratory that Vodafone has built in Newbury, west of London, and other support centers are planned to be built in Malaga and in the German city of Dresden. Johan Wibergh, Vodafone’s CTO, was delighted with his company’s announcement: “Open RAN offers great benefits for customers; our network will be highly programmable and automated, so we will be able to add new capabilities simultaneously across multiple sites, add direct capabilities more quickly, resolve issues instantly, and deliver connectivity to businesses on demand. ”
With this announcement, Vodafone is ahead of other European operators in promoting Open RAN by building a real network, in line with its commitment last October to have 2,500 sites in the UK. What is not so clear, in view of the companies that it has selected in this first phase, is that a competitive Open RAN ecosystem of European suppliers be created and the European network industry strengthened, as the first paragraph of the list of Open RAN technical requirements published by the main European operators and mentioned at the beginning of this article.