Open radio access network (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 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…
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.
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 operator 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.
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.