Open RAN – Same as it Ever Was

Readers, we tried. We really, really tried to pin down the status of the Open RAN initiative. We got a lot of eye rolls and resigned sights, but not a definitive answer.

How did we get here? Open RAN (O-RAN) is a initiative to decouple the software and the hardware of the Radio Access Network (RAN), the part of a wireless network that is actually wireless, connecting phones to the network. 

We asked someone in every one of our meetings at MWC what they thought of O-RAN. Like the blind philosophers and the elephant, or Roshamon, everyone had a different assessment. 

Loosely speaking these fall into three camps:

  • Strong Form – O-RAN is the inevitable future
  • Weak Form – O-RAN will never happen, at best it’s carcass will serve as the foundation of the next attempt at solving the problem
  • It’s Complicated – There will be some O-Ran arriving irregularly over some time period

Not surprisingly, a slim majority of respondents fell into that third, hybrid category, but even here there was a wide range of opinions. And everybody involved had sound logic for their views.

Boiling it all down (and glossing over a lot of technical details) the case for and against O-RAN’s progress is fairly straightforward.

On the one hand, the RAN today is largely controlled by the Network Equipment Providers (NEPs) especially Nokia and Ericsson, and maybe Huawei too (which is a whole other story). The operators care a lot about the RAN, because it is the chief technical constraint on their business around which everything else is optimized.  A lot of people argued that the operators are frustrated with the slow pace of development from the NEPs, as well as the associated costs. This argument holds that O-RAN will happen because the operators want things to be better.

All of which is true. The operators do want things to be better, but the case against O-RAN will point out that this condition is perennial in the industry. We have seen similar attempts in the past and all of them fell short of their initial ambitions. This time the industry is just going into the blue again. Strong Form O-RAN is a big threat to the NEPs’ business model, and they have a well honed playbook for countering it. The Weak Form of O-RAN holds that the carriers lack the will to see O-RAN through.

The idea behind the initiative is to enable separate hardware and software for the RAN, allowing the carriers can pick and choose the best solutions for each. The problem with this is that is all these pieces have to work together somehow. In theory, operators could run their RAN on commodity servers and pick one software vendor for Call Control, another for Security, another for Billing and Management, etc. But this introduces complexity, all those different modules have to inter-operate with each other, and commodity servers is a very broad brush that covers a lot of small variations which all have to be managed. All of this likley means a fair amount of cost to set up and manage O-RAN, leaving the operators wondering how do they work this.

For what it’s worth the operators we spoke to tended to echo this view – O-RAN is complicated and does not really deliver efficiencies sufficient to justify its deployment. This is admittedly a highly anecdotal data point, and a quick Google search yields operators commentary on both sides of the debate. 

All in all, we end up somewhere towards the more pessimistic end of the argument. The operators are slow moving and conservative. This is evidenced by the fairly small number of O-RAN deployments to date. It all just seems like a lot of work for not much gain. That being said, we are not in the Never Gonna Happen camp. If nothing else, for greenfield networks O-RAN makes sense (sometimes). As it stands now, even the big NEPs have said they will adopt O-RAN, albeit on their own terms. That means some of the features of O-RAN will get adopted, not so many to really threaten Ericsson or Nokia, but enough to allow a few new entrants to the field. 

Most importantly, there are some fairly influential industry participants supporting O-RAN. Much of the initial work came from Intel, who hoped to sell pricy CPUs into all those “commodity” servers. Their influence matters less now, but others are stepping in. This notably includes the cloud service providers. For their part, AWS and Azure do not need O-RAN, they will win significant telco business either way, but O-RAN would be beneficial to them. 

One thing we are comfortable saying is that we are not going to see widespread adoption of fully open, flexible O-RAN. It will not be one of those once in a lifetime opportunities where the industry shifts radically. 

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