What is open RAN and where are we at in 2021?

As industry projections suggest that proprietary vRAN provided by traditional vendors will continue to dominate the industry in the near termthis article highlights the key open RAN developments in 2020 and gives an overview of the current state of the industry on deploying open RAN. 

Open RAN enthusiasm hit an inflection point in 2020 

“Open RAN” – a catchall term for various technologies that involve disaggregation of hardware and software radio access network (RAN) components – can be characterised by three key pillars: centralisation (C-RAN), virtualisation (vRAN), and disaggregation (open-RAN)

In a year that saw the ramp-up of 5G commercial rollouts and mandates to rip and replace 5G equipment from certain vendors, open RAN has gained a lot of momentum in the telecoms industry. Operators – incumbents and challengers alike – have shown interest in starting field trials, pilots, and even commercial deployments of open RAN. Vodafone has committed to deploying open RAN in at least 2,600 rural locations in the UK by 2027, and announced that it would open a number of R&D labs across Europe. Meanwhile, Japanese new-entrant Rakuten Mobile ratified its alignment to the O-RAN Alliance, having deployed the world’s first cloud-native 5G network with a multi-vendor approach. As much as a third of the overall spend on RAN components and services by 2026 – around US$11 billion – is estimated by Appledore to be investment in open RAN

Figure 1: Three pillars of open RAN 

What is open RAN

…but most deployments are far from the open RAN vision 

The hype behind open RAN has largely circled around the promise of the third pillar – disaggregation or “open-RAN” – this is the ultimate ambition for operators, but open-RAN deployments are still nascent, meaning that its full benefits may not be realised until 6GFor many operators, vRAN will serve as a stepping stone in the near term. Analyst predictions even signal that single-vendor vRAN solutions will prevail: 80% of the projected US$11b budget for open RAN is expected to go to traditional incumbent vendors who will offer pre-integrated, proprietary vRAN solutions that contain some internal open interfaces.

How should operators deploy open RAN? 

To find out more about Open RAN and different deployment roadmaps for telcos, check out STL Partner’s Open RAN: What should telcos do? report. 

Author: Michelle Lo is a consultant at STL Partners, specialising in telco cloud, network automation and edge computing.

Telco Cloud insights pack

This 24-page document will provide you with a summary of our insights from our virtualisation research and consulting work:

  • Overview of Telco Cloud deployments worldwide
  • Benefits of telco cloud: state of the industry
  • Deployment approaches: implications and challenges
  • How STL Partners can support you

Just click on the button below to request your free pack.


Read more about Telco Cloud, Cloud Native, NFV & SDN


NFV goes mainstream: How cloud-native is contributing to growth

The number of deployments of NFV and SDN continues to grow – but while some markets are moving on to the next phase, others are just getting going.

Read more


Open RAN: What should telcos do?

Alongside the roll-out of 5G cores and radios, the Radio Access Network (RAN) is evolving to a more open, virtualised and distributed architecture. What are the opportunities and risks for telcos?

Register now


Telco Cloud: Why it hasn’t delivered, and what must change for 5G

Telco cloud made big promises for the transformation of telecoms. It is a fundamental enabler for 5G and the exciting opportunities ahead. Why hasn’t it delivered yet – and what needs to change?

Read more