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Is 5G Open RAN’s big chance?

LitePoint exec: ‘Open RAN is good for consumers and for operators’ operational costs’

According to a 2022 Wind River report, Open RAN (O-RAN) has the potential to deliver up to 30% TCO savings for operators. Because of outlooks like these, LitePoint’s Rex Chen, director of Business Development, believes that O-RAN is emerging as a more compelling for operators than other areas like private networks, for example, when it comes to ways to increase revenue, at least for now. “The thing about private networks is the use case needs to be clearly outlined and defined from the beginning,” he argued.

In other words, the case has to be made for private networks over say, Wi-Fi 6 or a private slice of a public network, making it more of a niche approach to monetization. Further, it’s hard for a single use case or application to make it worth building and deploying an entire private network. “Whereas with O-RAN, you, for one thing, have this rip-and-replace initiative, so there is an O-RAN push on the government side to open the playing field and not use Huawei equipment,” Chen continued.

For many vendors, operators, politicians and other ecosystem stakeholders, Open RAN, despite not being a new concept, is key to the 5G future. While virtualized RAN decouples hardware and software, allowing network functions to typically run on a proprietary technology stack to exist as software workloads using commodity or custom hardware, Open RAN considers the same but adds in modularity wherein hardware and software from multiple vendors can interoperate. In doing so, O-RAN promises to end vendor lock-in and lower OPEX for CSPs, and in that way, increase their revenue.

“Open RAN creates the opportunity for more vendors to participate and it’s an open system. It’s good for consumers and for operational costs for operators,” said Chen, adding that this fact, in and of itself, is a compelling reason as to why O-RAN is getting more traction than private networks when it comes to questions of monetization.

Sebastien Prieur, group manager of 5G Transport and RF at EXFO, agreed, revealing that O-RAN’s progress, particularly when compared to progress made by advanced 5G use cases and private networks, has surprised him: “This is happening faster than I was anticipating, while the rest is happening slower than expected.”

In fact, the potential cost savings and revenue gain of Open RAN are so significant for carriers that Jack Fritz, principal, Technology, Media, and Telecommunications at Deloitte Consulting, sees “no stop to it,” explaining that while talk of Open RAN was present in LTE, those system architectures are more closed, and so, the industry wasn’t really ready for it until now. “5G seems like the big chance… because it’s a more open and modular architecture,” he said.

But, O-RAN comes with challenges, particularly for test & measurement companies like EXFO, who are focused on ensuring that testing equipment is suitable for end-to-end interference detection and other services across all of a networks’ disaggregated parts.

“While the Open RAN concept is very good, the situation now is that we are moving from vendor-specific equipment implementation to operator-specific implementation,” said Prieur. What he means by that is that as vendor choice increases, the operator begins to function almost as an integrator, putting different network elements together as they see fit, making integration very different from one operator to the next.

“For now, it is something that we need to follow very carefully. We are still very early in the game, but we can see that this integrator role for the operator is emerging,” he added.

However, the industry continues to march on towards network disaggregation, believing that the benefits largely outweigh such challenges. The U.K, for example, has announced a goal of having 35% of its telecom networks operating with O-RAN by 2030. More broadly, the GSMA last July reported that 73 operators from 38 markets have either deployed or committed to Open RAN deployments.

Some of the biggest Open RAN advocates on the telco side that have been at the top of the watch list are Rakuten Mobile, which launched 4G and 5G commercial services based on Open RAN architecture in Japan, and Dish Network in the U.S., which continues work on its cloud-native, Open RAN technology-based 5G broadband network.

Key vendors for Rakuten include Altiostar, Cisco, Nokia, Intel, IBM Red Hat, OKI, Fujitsu, Ciena, NEC/Netcracker, Qualcomm, Mavenir, Quanta Cloud Technology, Sercomm, Tech Mahindra, Allot, Innoeye, Viavi, Robin.io, Radcom and Airspan. Key vendors for Dish include Altiostar, Mavenir, Fujitsu, Intel, Qualcomm, Nokia, VMware, Ciena Blue Planet, Matrixx, Hansen Technologies, DigitalRoute, and MTI. DISH will also use AWS Outposts and AWS Local Zones to build its 5G Open RAN network in the cloud.