The first commercial deployments of open RAN networks have been announced. But operators are unsure whether to deploy quickly for first-mover advantage or play it safe and wait for more proof points. We explore the causes of open RAN inertia and how operators can get deployments back on track.
The state of open RAN deployment
The goal of open RAN is to drive mobile network innovation by creating a diverse ecosystem of vendors which can stimulate competition and drive innovation. For operators, open RAN deployment is also part of a wider move to cloud-native architectures in networking. Cloud-native architectures leverage the scalability, flexibility and automation of cloud computing to improve networks. Therefore, cloud-native should be understood as an enabler of business transformation and generative of a new operational paradigm. It is not something operators buy to replace what they had before, unlike the norm for previous network technology generations.
The scale and depth of transformation required by cloud-native networking is one of the reasons that open RAN deployments have been pushed back by operators who are grappling with the extent of the organisational and technological development it requires. For this reason, there remain only a handful of commercial open RAN deployments despite the large number of trials and POCs carried out since 2016 (see the graph below). Despite this, it is important that the industry acts now to reignite open RAN ambition to achieve better and more efficient networking.
Global deployments of open RAN, 2016-2023
Source: STL Partners Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker (April 2023)
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Operators should eagerly pursue open RAN because it will introduce a multi-vendor ecosystem that will allow them to assemble and quickly evolve customisable stacks comprised of innovative “best-of-breed” hardware and software network components. In legacy RAN it has been difficult for operators to upgrade, customise or differentiate their own networks beyond the roadmap(s) of their selected vendor(s), a situation referred to as vendor lock in. Open RAN turns the legacy single-vendor network paradigm on its head. A truly multi-vendor ecosystem should give rise to more innovations that unlock network programmability and automation, reduce the total cost of ownership in the long term, and generate new revenue opportunities for operators. We explore open RAN-enabled benefits extensively in our research.
The ethos of openness and competition embodied by open RAN was developed by, among others, the O-RAN Alliance, an industry organisation formed at Mobile World Congress Barcelona in 2018. Founding members include Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, NTT Docomo, Orange and China Mobile. The O-RAN Alliance has since grown to include over 300 members who are working towards developing and promoting open standards and interfaces across the industry. Operators have begun to favour open networking principles and believe that it is the future of their networks, even if few are ready to deploy open RAN at scale. The below graphic sets out the differences between the various forms of virtualised RAN: cloud RAN (C-RAN), virtualised RAN (vRAN) and open RAN.
Open RAN, vRAN and C-RAN characteristics
Source: STL Partners
The desire among operators to adopt this technology is reflected in the large number of recent trials and pilots. See the below graph.
Open RAN trials and pilots by leading players up to 2022
Source: STL Partners
In order to understand the deferral of commercial open RAN deployments by brownfield operators we conducted interviews with telcos and technology providers globally. We validated the operators’ commitment to open RAN and open ecosystems and discussed the challenges, both internal and external, hindering large-scale deployments. The graph below shows when most operators predict they will implement open RAN.
Operators’ predictions for the implementation of open RAN
Source: STL Partners, June 202, n=65
Table of contents
- Executive Summary
- Table of Figures
- Consensus for open RAN has crystallised but only trailblazers are deploying at scale
- The state of open RAN deployment
- Ecosystem immaturity and transformation inertia are holding back open RAN roll out
- Direct legacy comparison ROI case is weak
- Lack of parity proof points on energy efficiency and performance
- Perceived barrier of bringing in the skills, processes and culture of cloud-native
- Five reasons why open RAN deployments will get back on track
- New silicon is coming
- The performance parity gap will close (largely driven by RIC innovation)
- The ROI is there if operators allow enough time for the benefits to be realised
- Operators can realise open RAN benefits now (by deploying aspects of the RIC on legacy networks)
- SIs will help operators to master cloud-native networks
- Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker : Is 5G SA getting real?
- A3 in open RAN
- Network-as-a-service: APIs, AI and the open cloud
- The Telco Cloud Manifesto 2.0