As 5G continues to roll out globally, there has been growing interest in the concept of open radio access network (RAN). Open RAN is a new approach to building mobile networks that allow for more flexibility and innovation by breaking up traditional hardware and software monoliths into open, interoperable components.
In today’s 5G world, open RAN is gaining traction as a way to accelerate 5G adoption and make it more cost effective, especially for smaller mobile network operators. This is because it allows them to avoid being locked into proprietary hardware and software from a single vendor, which has traditionally been the case in the telecom industry.
According to a recent report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association, open RAN has the potential to reduce the cost of deploying mobile networks by up to 30 per cent. Additionally, open RAN can increase competition among vendors, which can lead to lower prices, greater innovation, and ultimately, better services for consumers.
Further, the technology is seen as a way to promote the use of virtualisation and cloud technologies in the mobile industry. By using open interfaces and standard application programming interfaces, it allows the integration of different vendors’ solutions and technologies, making it easier to deploy new services and applications. This approach enables network operators to have more control over the network, and can lead to quicker innovation, more efficient network management and better service quality.
However, the deployment of open RAN is not devoid of challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of standardisation. There are currently multiple initiatives and organisations, such as the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the Open RAN Policy Coalition, the OpenRAN Alliance and the O-RAN Alliance, working on defining open RAN standards. While these organisations have made significant progress in defining open RAN standards, there is still uncertainty around the success and implementation of these standards.
Another challenge is the potential security risks associated with open RAN. As open RAN allows for the use of different vendors’ solutions, there is a risk that a security vulnerability in one component could compromise the entire network. This risk is mitigated by the use of security protocols and standards, but it remains a concern for network operators.
Gaining global momentum
Despite these challenges, the technology is gaining momentum globally, with many countries and operators already trialling or deploying open RAN networks. For example, in Japan, NTT Docomo has launched a 5G open RAN trial in collaboration with several vendors, including Fujitsu, NEC and Nokia. In Europe, Vodafone has announced that it will deploy open RAN at a minimum of 2,600 sites across the UK by 2027, while Telefonica has launched an open RAN pilot in Spain.
In the US, the Biden administration has identified open RAN as a key priority in its efforts to secure the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. In March 2021, the White House announced a $1 billion investment to support the development and deployment of open RAN solutions in the US. This rising global focus on open RAN is propelling its growth in the telecom domain. According to a recent report by Research and Markets, the global open RAN market is expected to grow from $2.2 billion in 2020 to $10.3 billion by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate of 36.9 per cent.
Growth prospects in India
With the recent launch of 5G roll-outs in India, there is growing interest in the potential of open RAN to accelerate the adoption of 5G and drive innovation in the telecom space.
The government has been promoting the use of open RAN as a way to encourage innovation and competition in the mobile industry. As early as 2020 it had launched the Telecom Infrastructure Policy, which aimed to promote the use of open and interoperable standards in the deployment of mobile networks. Telecom operators have also been exploring the use of open RAN in their networks. In February 2021, Reliance Jio announced that it had successfully tested an open RAN solution on its 5G network. The trial involved the use of a virtualised RAN solution from Altiostar and a 5G core network from Mavenir.
In March 2021, Bharti Airtel announced that it had partnered with several equipment vendors, including Altiostar, Cisco and Nokia, to conduct a 5G trial using open RAN. The trial involved the deployment of an open RAN solution at a rural site in the state of Punjab. This is somewhat challenging for mobile networks due to the remote location and lack of infrastructure.
In addition to telecom operators, several start-ups have been developing open RAN solutions for the Indian market. For example, Bengaluru-based VVDN Technologies has developed an open RAN platform that allows for the integration of different vendors’ solutions and technologies. The platform also includes a software-defined radio solution that supports multiple frequency bands, making it suitable for use in the Indian market.
While open RAN has the potential to drive innovation and competition in the Indian telecom industry, there are also some challenges that need to be addressed. One of the biggest is the lack of skilled resources and expertise in the deployment of open RAN networks. To address this, the Indian government has launched several initiatives such as the Skill India programme, which aims to provide training and certification in the field of telecommunications.
Another challenge is the need for greater collaboration among various stakeholders in the industry. This includes telecom operators, equipment vendors, startups and government agencies. To facilitate this collaboration, the Indian government has set up several forums and working groups such as the India-EU ICT Standards Collaboration Project, which aims to promote the adoption of open and interoperable standards in the telecom industry.
Future trends in open RAN and 5G
The convergence of open RAN and 5G is expected to generate the following key trends in the future:
- Increased adoption of open RAN: According to Omdia, the adoption of open RAN is expected to grow by 50 per cent annually, reaching a market size of $1.4 billion by 2024. With major global telecom players such as Telefonica and Vodafone committing to using open RAN in their networks, it is likely that more telcos will follow suit.
- Continued development of open RAN standards: To enable interoperability and ensure consistent performance, open RAN standards will continue to be developed. This will be particularly important for the integration of multiple vendors in a single network.
- Convergence of open RAN and cloud computing: Open RAN is well suited for the cloud, as it allows for the disaggregation of hardware and software. This convergence is expected to result in more efficient use of resources and increased scalability.
- Expansion of private 5G networks: Private 5G networks are expected to grow in popularity, particularly in the industrial sector. Open RAN will be essential for the deployment of these networks, as it allows for customisation and flexibility.
- Emergence of open RAN-as-a-service: As open RAN gains momentum, it is likely that more companies will offer it as a service. This will allow operators to reduce costs and improve efficiency, as they will no longer have to manage their own infrastructure.
In sum, open RAN is a promising approach to building mobile networks that can accelerate 5G adoption, reduce costs, increase competition and promote innovation. While there are challenges that need to be addressed, such as the lack of skilled resources and the need for greater collaboration, stakeholders across the telecom domain are taking steps to promote the adoption of open RAN and 5G.