Open radio access network (O-RAN) is the latest buzzword in the telecom sector. By enabling automated and ac­celerated provisioning of network capa­city and services, greater control over the development of enhanced network services, ability to work with the best-in-class suppliers, and reduced network equipment and op­­erating expenses, these networks offer te­lcos greater flexibility. Owing to the various advantages of the technology, operators ac­ross the globe and in India are warming up to the idea of building open RAN architectures. Going forward, as 5G becomes the dominant te­ch­nology across countries, op­en RAN is expected to be an enabler of fl­ex­ible, ro­bust and programmable 5G net­w­o­­rks that can facilitate innovative use cases.

A look at the evolving open network ecosystem and the new opportunities it presents for stakeholders…

Market trends

During the past few years, open RAN has emerged as one of the most promising te­ch­nologies in the telecom ecosystem. According to a recently published report by the Dell’Oro Group, total cumulative op­en RAN revenues are projected to ap­proach $10 billion to $15 billion bet­ween 2020 and 2025. As per the report, the momentum of both commercial de­ployments and the bro­a­der open RAN mo­vement continued to improve during the first half of 2021, bolstering the thesis that open RAN is here to stay. Further, open RAN revenues are ex­pected to ac­count for more than 10 per cent of the overall RAN market by 2025, reflecting healthy traction in multiple regions with both basic and ad­vanced radios. More­over, open RAN massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) projections have been revised upward to reflect the improv­ed competiti­ve landscape and market sen­timent with upper mid-band open RAN. However, the shift towards virtualised RAN (vRAN) is progressing at a slightly slower pace than open RAN. None­theless, the vRAN market is expected to approach $2 billion to $3 billion by 2025.

Components of open RAN

Open networks comprise three key components: cloudification, intelligence and auto­mation, and open internal RAN interfaces. While the first component involves hardware and software disaggregation and using RAN applications as cloud-native fu­nc­tio­ns, the second uses open management and orchestration with external artificial intelligence/machine learning capabilities. Fina­lly, the third component includes interfaces defined by 3GPP.

Key advantages

Unlike traditional RAN, open RAN decouples hardware and software, thereby giving operators more flexibility to deploy and upgrade their network architecture. Deco­u­pling the hardware and software functions reduces time-to-market, as it is quicker to deploy open networks than traditional ones. Further, open networks can help dive­r­sify and reinvigorate the supply chain by promoting competition and innovation. For instance, operators can focus on buildi­ng and operating a RAN based on mix-and-match components from different vendors.

Other benefits of the technology include the development of future-proof networks so that operators do not have to replace their infrastructure, instead undertaking a simple software upgrade. Open RAN standards also offer significant cost savings to telcos. For instance, as per an industry report, the total cost of ownership in a greenfield network deployment scenario can be roughly 26 per cent lower for an open RAN network, based on more competitive pricing of radio equipment, maintenance contracts and software.

Cloudification and telco edge

The deployment of open RAN leads to significant transformation across the telecom network. It not only makes the network more software-driven, but also ma­kes it interoperable among multivendor equipment suppliers across different generations of networks. Moreover, the clou­di­fication of networks through open RAN solutions enables telecom networks to handle compl­ex applications that require more compute power. This not only helps reduce costs but also enables the disaggregation of services.

The disaggregation of RAN also en­ables better network slicing and edge compute capabilities. In fact, open RAN dep­loyments at the network edge can be beneficial for some applications such as internet of things and connected cars. With a disaggregated network in open RAN, the computing power can be pushed to the ed­ge of the cloud, while other processes re­main at the core. Hence, edge computing, along with network slicing, will allow telcos to design and provision the network based on end-user applications.

Current adoption and deployment scenario

Owing to the numerous benefits that open RAN offers, telcos across the globe have started embracing the technology. Among glo­bal operators, greenfield networks that have embraced open RAN technology in­clude Rakuten, Vodafone, Telefonica and MTN. In Europe, a consortium of the re­gion’s three leading operators – Deut­sche Telekom, Vodafone and Tele­fonica Deut­s­ch­land – have linked with a group of re­sear­chers and test equipment specialists to fund a new open lab that will speed up the deve­lo­pment of a variety of disaggregated network architectures in Ger­many and Eu­r­ope. In France, Orange has set ambitious plans to install only mobile network gear link­ed to open RAN from 2025. In the US, wireless newcomer Dish will be­gin the roll-out the world’s second largest greenfield network based entirely on open RAN technology. With a commitment to cover 70 per cent of the US po­pulation by June 2023, this new network will be a further test of open RAN’s carrier-grade capabilities and is bound to highlight further areas for development.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Etisalat became the first operator to successfully launch open vRAN. The operator partnered with Altiostar, NEC, Cisco and other leading vRAN technology vendors for the deployment. In Africa, the MTN Group has deployed open RAN at over 200 commercial rural sites. It has partnered with VANU, Parallel Wireless and NuRAN Wireless for the deployment, and its operations in Uganda and Guinea Conakry are already benefiting from this technology. The operator now plans to deploy open RAN at more than 5,000 sites in rural areas across its 21 areas of operation. In addition, Turkey-based telco Tu­rk­cell has joined hands with Mavenir to test and deploy an open vRAN system.

In India too, telcos have started jumping on the open RAN bandwagon to modernise their networks. Leading the pack is Reliance Jio, which has announced plans to roll out 5G services using its indigenously developed open RAN architecture. The op-e­rator is currently testing voice and messa­ging applications using its 5G open RAN solution in several cities, and has partnered with chip manufacturers such as Qualco­mm to make virtualised RAN and small ce­lls to support its 5G network. Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel has been collaborating with vendors such as the Tata Group, Intel and Qualco­mm to transform its existing fixed function equipment-based communication network into a more flexible network fra­me­work. This switch to open RAN, as per the company, will help it offer more innovative solutions to its customers in an inc­re­a­singly hyperconnected environment. Mo­re­over, Vodafone Idea has been leveraging the US-based software company Mavenir’s open RAN solutions to scale up 4G adoption.

Role of open networks in the 5G ecosystem

Open RAN is also at the epicentre of the launch of 5G networks, given its ability to support a plethora of 5G use cases. It is gaining traction as 5G roll-out picks up pace and operators look to lower their capex and opex amidst rising capital intensity, and subdued subscriber and revenue growth. According to industry estimates, open RAN revenues will constitute 10 per cent or more of the overall RAN market by 2025, from less than 1 per cent at present. However, integration complexity is likely to remain one of the major barriers in its adoption. Once 5G services are rolled out, deploying 5G RAN would require planning for a range of new features such as MIMO antennas, large spectrum bandwidth and multiband carrier aggregation.

Future outlook

Net, net, the concept of building open networks seems to be gaining traction am­ong both global and Indian telecom operators. The year 2021 will be a critical one in the open RAN space, as laboratory ex­periments and field trials for open RAN are expected to give way to commercial de­­ployments. With full-scale greenfield open RAN network deployments under way in Japan and the US, and smaller-scale deployments be­ing planned in Europe, the deployment of op­en networks is set to ex­pand rapidly. How­­ever, this expansion would depend on the continued growth of a healthy ecosystem, which would require adding new suppliers and innovations to this developing market.