The telecom industry is witnessing a technological revolution. The launch of new-age technologies such as IoT, AI and big data is pushing operators to move away from a hardware-centric approach to a software-centric one for building their networks. The launch of 5G is only expected to add to the existing strain on networks. Thus, telecom networks need to become more scalable, interoperable and reliable. The majority of telecom operators globally have widespread presence and own massive network infrastructure, which has been running on legacy technologies and now needs to be modernised in a rather short span of time.

In this context, the rapid adoption of open source technologies across telecom operator networks could help minimise the constraints of traditional legacy networks. Open source implies collaboration among developers, allowing technology and software deployed on a network to be freely shared and altered by the larger developer community. The community model of open source development helps identify and respond to user needs more rapidly than the traditional models. Thus, open source could help operators find interoperable solutions, encourage innovation, improve quality and security, and contribute to the community. The open source approach also helps vendors free up resources to pursue value-added products/services, improve quality and security, and contribute to the community.

Open source and 5G

5G presents a wide range of opportunities for telecom operators. However, the opportunities will remain unrealised if the network is not democratised. This is where open source technologies come into play. Open source software will play an important role in the development of 5G networks. Operators need to replace their current legacy hardware with open source technologies, which are far more scalable, reliable and cost efficient. Operators need to deploy NFV and SDN solutions in order to build the cloud-native and automated 5G networks.

By adopting open infrastructure, which comprises open source software, non-proprietary hardware and multi-vendor collaboration, telecom operators can create a fully virtualised infrastructure capable of delivering critical services. For instance, by deploying OpenStack cloud, operators can reorient their service delivery to become more programmable. Similarly, OpenRAN technology helps operators reduce deployment costs, improve interoperability between vendors, and bring intelligent computing to the edge of the network, thereby improving performance and unlocking new capabilities. Moreover, with an open source network, operators can significantly enhance their services, thereby delivering a better customer experience.

Recent uptake

The operator community, as well as businesses, are actively engaged in making collaborative alliances to help drive the uptake of open source technologies. These include the O-RAN Alliance, which includes members such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, Verizon and SK Telecom. In December 2018, Reliance Jio also joined the ORAN Alliance board. Apart from this, there is the Open vRAN initiative, which is backed by Cisco. Meanwhile, Vodafone is deploying open radio access network (RAN) systems to expand mobile telephony coverage in the rural and urban areas of the UK. To this end, the telco is leveraging the technology developed in partnership with Lime Microsystems through the Telecom Infra Project, a collaborative telecom community. Further, following earlier trials in South Africa and Turkey, Vodafone has now initiated the first European roll-out of open RAN technology as part of its OpenRAN initiative.

The way forward

Going forward, open source is expected to emerge as a key trend that will impact the telecom industry in a big way. It will be a key factor driving telcos’ transition to the cloud and digital platforms. In recent years, a large global community has emerged around open source software, with companies now providing support services as well. This also ensures a reduced risk of vendor lock-in for telcos as compared to lock-in in the case of proprietary software licence investments. Another key benefit of open source software is better security, as there is a higher likelihood of bugs being detected by a large community. Currently, only few telcos in India are leveraging open source software, that too in a limited way, with the aim to redefine the return on investment metrics. However, this is expected to change in the near future.