Open radio access network (RAN) and private 5G networks are two of the most hyped technologies dictating the telecommunications industry. However, so far, neither has reached mass adoption. At present, telecom operators, network and equipment vendors, and private sector enterprises are exploring a new model wherein the two technologies are integrated to derive several technical and operational benefits while also providing new revenue streams.
A look at the progress of open RAN and private 5G networks as standalone concepts, the potential benefits of their amalgamation, global deployments and the way forward…
Open RAN has been a goal for telecom operators worldwide for years now, and some of them are already deploying such architectures in greenfield networks. But these operators are not sufficient in number to enable all the equipment providers targeting open RAN to build strong revenue streams. The bulk of operators’ spending is still on upgrades to legacy networks owing to the immaturity of open RAN and the challenges in deploying it. It is believed that the technology will not be widely adopted in telecom operators’ macro networks for at least three to four years. Thus, there is a risk that many small innovators and vendors will not survive the wait for the technology to catch up with the needs of large mobile network operators, which is a further risk to future adoption.
Meanwhile, private 5G networks are also at a nascent stage. Since the roll-out of long term evolution (LTE), internet of things (IoT) services such as Category-M and narrowband-IoT, traditional network equipment vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson have been actively selling private networks to enterprises, especially for large-scale IoT deployments such as industrial sensors and smart meters. Many smaller players, however, are struggling to specialise in private wireless.
Given the limited opportunities and the long time frame for widespread deployment, most open RAN vendors are currently focusing on areas where there is pent-up demand and where first-generation open RAN solutions will be capable of supporting most of the use cases. A particular model that is of growing interest to these players is private 5G networks.
Open architectures can lead to a host of operational and monetary benefits for private 5G networks. Open RAN, when combined with shared or industrial spectrum, can enable a diversity of private wireless deployers or vendors, which will be important to meet the varying use cases and roll-out scenarios of various enterprises. Open RAN deployment in private networks also promises to make these networks more easily deployable and manageable due to open reference designs that are similar to those used in enterprise Wi-Fi. With the opening up of the ecosystem to new vendors, a wide range of solutions can emerge that are optimised for various price points, physical environments and use cases so that those deploying networks can select the best price or performance characteristics for their customers.
Further, businesses that have so far implemented private networks have generally adopted single-vendor technology. Having a multivendor open environment available to them would mean that the barriers to adoption of 5G private networks would be lowered considerably. Open RAN can help reduce the cost of private networks because enterprises will be able to mix and match network elements and vendors will need to compete on price throughout the network. This would also lead to higher availability of the skills required to implement a 5G network and a considerable reduction in the infrastructure overheads, allowing commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware to be deployed instead of expensive, proprietary equipment. Furthermore, open RAN software can be virtualised and run on a cloud. With virtualisation and cloudification, no dedicated hardware would be required. Instead, cloud computing power can be shared and utilised only to the extent needed. With this, different sizes of private networks can be supported on demand at reasonable costs.
Nearly all enterprise networks are geographically constrained and have lower and more predictable traffic loads as compared to public networks. The network is critical to the business and operations of enterprises. But it will rarely need to support the same density of devices using high-bandwidth applications in a given location relative to a public network. Also, private networks need only one or two frequencies to operate, unlike public networks that need around five frequencies in different bands. Massive MIMO is usually not used in private networks unless it is for a very large campus or private venue, while it is heavily used in almost all public 5G networks. Hence, current open RAN performance can easily match the requirements of private networks. There is a growing demand for cellular networks from organisations that will want a cost-effective, simpler solution than the more complex and customised private networks commissioned by large enterprises, which could be addressed by open RAN. If this demand materialises, it will lead to a greenfield market with no incumbency for traditional telecom equipment vendors. In addition, most of the current performance requirements for private 5G networks can be met by first-generation open RAN designs, thereby generating near-term revenue for emerging open RAN developers.
Open RAN can configure the system to better meet enterprise requirements by leveraging new-age technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and automation. These technologies already exist in open RAN frameworks unlike the legacy RAN solutions.
Open RAN vendors worldwide are already targeting the private networks market, and private networks start-ups, in turn, are exploring open RAN. For instance, US-based Celona recently announced the first enterprise-focused implementation of the O-RAN Alliance’s specifications that allow for the virtualisation of 5G RAN software within private mobile networks. The company also launched a service called edgeless enterprise, which converges network services, enterprise applications, cybersecurity tools, wide area network optimisation and RAN functions on cloud-native edge computing platforms that can be deployed on premises or in a remote location. Meanwhile, Keysight Technologies has implemented open RAN in its facilities and has seen strong private networking growth in specialised markets such as manufacturing, energy, mining, ports, supply chain and medical. Keysight’s Open RAN Architect (KORA) solution portfolio was selected by Celona to validate the quality and reliability of 5G private network deployments for enterprises.
In January this year, Northrop Grumman Corporation, AT&T and Fujitsu demonstrated 5G-enabled intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, which integrated radios with Northrop Grumman’s tactical data links, AT&T’s private 5G network and Fujitsu’s open RAN to transmit ISR data and video. This collaboration showcased the benefits of commercially available 5G for the US’s Department of Defense, and the open, standards-based technologies that the companies are developing as leaders in the O-RAN Alliance.
Operators such as BT and Orange have also endorsed combining open RAN and private 5G networks while waiting for open interfaces to mature. Orange is starting with easier scenarios such as rural deployments, indoor and private networks, and will then progressively ramp up to the rest of the network. As for BT, it is selecting more open RAN partners for the next steps in 4G and 5G private networks. In addition, Vodafone recently unveiled an open RAN-compatible 5G network-in-a-box, claiming that the move could revolutionise the 5G private network market. In October 2022, UAE-based du also launched private 5G using open RAN.
The way forward
Open RAN, regardless of its fortunes in brownfield public 5G networks, may make a mark in the parallel ecosystem of private cellular platforms. Although this model is still being explored by new entrants, operators and systems integrators globally, the current open RAN test beds are providing a growing business case for organisations looking to design and implement private 5G networks. By implementing open RAN-based private networks, network operators will be able to prove the open RAN model decisively and address any issues before scaling the technology into larger national networks.
According to Analysys Mason, open RAN will account for 71 per cent of all small cells deployed in the private enterprise sector in 2026. First-generation open RAN solutions will be capable of supporting most private wireless use cases and may, therefore, find a foothold in enterprise networks. That said, it can be concluded that open RAN and private 5G networks are themselves not a means to an end; they are technology enablers that open up a new host of possibilities for enterprises.