What we need is another standard

O-RAN is rapidly rising in the ranks of marketing terms that are losing their meaning. This latest telecom acronym stands for Open Radio Access Networks. It is an interesting idea, the kind that percolate up every few years in telecom networking circles. And it looks like it is going down the same whirlpool as a whole ocean of other letters, things like RCS, WAC, OMA, LIMO and many others. The big difference is this one is not only saddled with all the baggage of telecom bureaucracy, ORAN also has attracted the interest of US politicians. Telecom Operators and Politicians – what could possibly go wrong?

Some background. The RAN is the portion of cellular networks that sit between a mobile phone and the rest of the network – base stations, antennas, some switches. This is the part of the network that directly manipulates the radio waves and handles things like connecting a phone to a nearby base station, handing a moving phone off to another base station, and making sure phones stay connected. This is some fairly important equipment, for both consumer quality of service but also in terms of cost for the telecom carriers. If the gear is too expensive or too low in capacity it can really hurt the operators’ economics. For years, the big equipment companies like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei have dominated this market. Since the gear is so important to the operators, they have stringent requirements, and selling to them is hassle, so there is no room for small companies. The operators are aware of the expense and rigidity of these systems. A big part of 5G is to allow the carriers to break apart the functions in their equipment, so that they are not reliant on purpose built telecom gear but can instead use the hardware and software that Internet companies have been using for a decade.

This has given rise to O-RAN. As the O indicates, the goal of this project is to open up the RAN. Instead of relying on purpose built gear, O-RAN sets out a system of specifications and interfaces that allow different parts of the RAN to work together, even if the parts come from different vendors. To greatly oversimplify, the idea is to push as much of the RAN functionality into software that can run on commodity servers. Like we said at the outset, this is a perfectly reasonable idea.

There is no way it was going to be this easy. This is the point in the story when the couple have settled into their new home and then one night hear a growling noise coming from the basement.

First, the incumbent RAN vendors have no interest in any of this. They make good margins from selling RAN gear and licensing RAN software. So while they are members of the O-RAN Alliance, their actions there are not entirely altruistic. For O-RAN to work, it needs to communicate with the rest of the carriers’ network, which again is largely made by the dominant vendors. Without reliable access to that gear, O-RAN functionality is hindered. And the incumbents are in no hurry to open up that access. Moreover, it is always worth asking how much the operators really care about this, more often than not they sow the seeds of indifference for their own initiatives.

A second problem, and this is one that challenges all telecom equipment, is inter-operability. Company A’s O-RAN gear has to work with Company B’s O-RAN gear. The O-RAN Alliance, the governing body behind the project, has set out some interoperability specifications, but as of this writing, those are not entirely complete. Once again, we refer you to a great write-up at Light Reading for some background on the deficiencies of those specifications (This post also has one of the best ledes we’ve seen in a telecom post in a while.) Without saying it directly, Light Reading hints that maybe the O-RAN specifications were deliberately scuttled by some of the incumbents. We are certainly not accusing them of that, merely indicating that this is a thing some people might say. Put simply, O-RAN proponents set out to come up with a new standard and each one of them invented their own.

To be clear, this is not the first time the industry has tried to standardize interfaces for the RAN. The last time we had a whole different set of acronyms – CPRI and OBSAI (it doesn’t matter what they stand for). This was much narrower in scope, really dealing with the electronic components of base stations, but it did not fare any better.

All that being said, O-RAN has some hope of getting off the ground. It is a sensible goal for the industry and would likely greatly improve some of the operators’ cost structures. We also think there are going to be some companies that can capture a piece of the pie, in some narrowly defined areas. But the wider goal of dramatically altering the industry seems unlikely to happen at this time. The ecosystem is just too complex.

Further compounding the problem is that O-RAN has gotten tangled in US politics. When the US Government declared Huawei a national security threat, many Huawei customers asked for an alternative. Someone latched onto the idea of O-RAN. The logic flows something like: O-RAN is supposed to reduce the competitive power of the incumbent vendors, and Huawei is an incumbent vendor, so the enemy of my enemy is my friend….The argument never really made sense, not least because Nokia and Ericsson are not exactly national security threats. We have lost track of the O-RAN positioning in Washington, we know it is still out there, but Politico.com does not seem to have mentioned it in almost a year. However that ends up, the mere fact that politicians were talking about it muddled the picture of the true state of O-RAN.

In the end, we hope that O-RAN gains some traction, but think it will only be implemented in parts. It’s greatest value likely rests in that it lays the foundation for the next attempt at greater openness. The ideas behind O-RAN hold considerable weight. So maybe someday, the operators will feel sufficient need to really push for broader change and the incumbents will be in a weaker position, so that next acronym has an actual chance at success.

Image credit: XKCD

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