Open RAN Experts: Not quite ready for prime time

Open RAN works, but the strongest supporters are clear it has a way to go. CTO Tareq Amin of Rakuten, with the most advanced deployment in the world, had to spend “hundreds of millions” on custom chips to get the performance he needs. My unofficial numbers are custom chip cost wiped out all the initial savings. Rakuten hasn’t turned on 5G yet.

Please don’t misread me as an opponent of Open RAN. It is probably the right choice for a new network today and will play a growing role in the future. But there are problems that must be solved.

Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone Group’s Head of Network Strategy & Architecture and Chairman of Telecom Infra Project (TIP), is one of the most enthusiastic supporters and has four field trials underway. Tenorio says

The big suppliers currently have the TCO upper hand. The traditional vendors have decades of experience, have thousands of employees, and are able to decide what would work better for operators. If you’re going to deploy [OpenRAN] in say, 25 sites, you may get better commercial conditions from incumbents.

There are numerous industry challenges if operators are to reap the promised open RAN benefits of a “richer ecosystem” and lower total cost of ownership (TCO). … We haven’t even scratched the surface of system integration challenges. There are one million different ways in which you can actually build a product that satisfies O-RAN specifications.

Nick Read, Vodafone CEO, is uncertain whether Open RAN will be ready for full deployment even in 2022. “We need government and we need operators to scale this to improve functionality and efficiency.” Tenorio explains

The software development phase had not advanced far enough. Fine‑tuning software, to fix errors, compromises performance and capacity. This might be acceptable in suburban and rural locations, where capacity demands are lower, but is more problematic in densely-populated urban areas.

From the Gulf

Hatem Bamatraf, Chief Technology Officer at Etisalat International, is preparing Open RAN trials in several countries.  He believes the ecosystem needs “some time to mature.”

Bamatraf suggests initial Open RAN 5G deployments will be better suited for specific use cases such as indoor small cells, private networks or public network expansion to new areas.

“Operators who can wait to deploy 5G for a couple of years may have a better chance to take advantage of 5G Open RAN, especially if they can shut down their 2G or/and 3G networks and re-farm some of the lower bands spectrum to 5G,” he tells Techchannel.

“There is no advantage for Open RAN infrastructure to replace existing commercial networks. There is still a long way to go in terms of proving the performance, operating model and cost advantage of Open RAN. The introduction of Open RAN to current networks will be gradual and controlled to maintain at least the same level of quality of service that customers enjoy today.”

Looking ahead

Open RAN for 5G is particularly challenged by the performance and software requirements of Massive MIMO. MM is virtually required for good results in the mid-band spectrum so essential for 5G.

Gabriel Brown, one of the best analysts, has a summary of the recent developments worth downloading.

TIP Open RAN companies

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