Open RAN is gaining traction amid 5G deployment
This new approach could bolster competition, lower prices and settle the supremacy of software on the telecom market.
Early June, the U.S. Senate approved a measure aimed at boosting the country’s technological strength. Among various expenditures, it includes $1.5 billion in support of 5G innovation, in particular support of Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN). This move comes as no surprise, as the Pentagon had already highlighted the strategic importance of open source 5G back in December 2019.
By bringing an open interface to telecommunications, Open RAN has the potential to challenge the status quo, multiply the benefits of 5G and radically transform the telecom market, bolstering competition and fostering innovation. There are now three major industry groups pushing for it: the O-RAN Alliance, TIP OpenRAN and the recently launched Open RAN Policy Coalition.
Traditionally, the hardware and software that serve as the backbone of our telecommunication network are provided by a single manufacturer as a closed system. You can’t, for example, use Huawei’s antennas and radio units with a centralized unit from Ericsson, or Nokia’s radio software with ZTE’s equipment. With Open RAN, you’re no longer locked into one ecosystem, which means that you can mix hardware and software from different kinds of environments.
While Open RAN isn’t limited to 5G (you can also have an open 4G, for example), the characteristics of 5G make this technology particularly prone to openness. As Will Tonwsend, Senior Analyst of Networking and Security Practice at Moor Insights & Strategy puts it, “5G is inherently more virtualized than 4G thus its architecture lends itself to a more disaggregated, open source development path.” From smart city to IoT, automated production lines to self-driving cars, 5G also opens up many more use cases than its predecessors, making the benefits of Open RAN more obvious.
The benefits of Open RAN
By breaking up silos, Open RAN has the potential to open up competition in a market that was previously dominated by a handful of infrastructure providers (Huawei, ZTE, Nokia and Ericsson). It thus lowers the risk for telecom providers, which are no longer reliant on a single supplier and can easily switch if there is an issue. The Huawei affair has recently proven why this matters.
Open RAN can also be deployed faster than legacy equipment, primarily because of higher software automation. Though you still need to build the physical infrastructure, you’ll be able to instantly deploy your radio sites based on your needs. Integration, commissioning, parameters setting... all of that will happen automatically in the background, through software automation.
Open RAN, furthermore, makes it easier to scale. As former physical network functions are now containerized or virtualized, you can base them on your needs, allocating network capacity for different services through software. Previously, to improve your network capacity, you had to go to the site and set up new infrastructure.
Now, it can all be done through software. It means that if you’re filling a stadium with 60, 000 people for a sporting event, you can temporarily scale up the capacity in this area to the needed level, and scale down instantly once the game is over. In short, Open RAN is bringing software at the forefront of telecommunications.
Is Open RAN climate-friendly?
Finally, Open RAN can also contribute significantly to energy savings, hence reducing carbon emissions. Most of the former physical functions of legacy networks have been virtualized or containerized and are typically run on the latest generation of COTS hardware servers, thus the overall network elements required have been reduced.
With the current trend of turning network functions into software functions, the power consumption can be optimized along with it through innovative software features.
“Open RAN has the potential to challenge the status quo, multiply the benefits of 5G and radically transform the telecom market, bolstering competition and fostering innovation”
Self-Organizing Network (SON) plays a significant role here by monitoring the traffic in the network. For example, in areas where there is little to no traffic outside the peak hours, these network functions can be scaled down or even shut down to save energy.
The U.S.’s push on Open RAN
This software supremacy is one of the main reasons why the U.S. is currently betting on this technology. In addition to the measure that was adopted in June, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense, also partnered in February with the LinkedIn Foundation to promote the deployment of open 5G. Already betting on the future, the U.S. and Japan also agreed in April to invest $4.5 billion for the development of 6G and Open RAN.
Unlike China, the U.S. doesn’t have any major 5G infrastructure provider. However, it has some of the best software companies in the world, including Microsoft, IBM, Google and Facebook, which supports Open RAN through the Telecom Infra Project. Additionally, there are a few independent companies leading the way into the open 5G ecosystem, such as Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.
“We may be able to increase security, reduce our exposure to any single foreign vendor, lower costs and push the equipment market to where the United States is uniquely skilled—in software,” Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in March.
A long, difficult path
Open RAN isn’t a magic bullet, however, and some difficulties will need to be solved to make it the new standard. “One of the big challenges is that Open RAN is optimized for cost savings and not performance,” says Will Townsend. “Companies that can address the performance aspect will be very successful.”
Another potential challenge is the increased complexity that the technology will bring. “Integration will be key. With disaggregation comes complexity - and traditional infrastructure providers such as Huawei, Samsung, Ericsson and Nokia provided the integration expertise at a cost. System integrators and IT solution providers such as HPE and Dell Technologies have telecom teams focused here to address the validation and integration. They could emerge as big facilitators for Open RAN adoption.”
A safer bet?
Whether this increased complexity will be a boon or a bane for cybersecurity and privacy remains to be seen. Early deployment of the technology will probably prove challenging in this domain, as Open RAN will bring more industry standard computing, storage and networking elements into the mix, thereby increasing the overall threat surface.
In the long run, however, the network should emerge stronger. Whereas legacy networks operated as a blackbox at the mercy of one supplier, with no transparency. Open RAN will open up everything, making it easier for incumbents to step in and deploy new, innovative security mechanisms. Atos, for instance, has a strong background in cybersecurity solutions and will be able to provide values for physical functions which are now being virtualized and containerized.
Privacy laws may need to evolve
As telecommunication networks open up, privacy laws need to evolve, according to a recent white paper from The 5G Infrastructure Association: “The deployment of services using new 6G capabilities and the emergence of millions of specialised and localised subnetworks may require further clarification for what concerns the applicability of net neutrality rules and of the data protection regulation (ePD and GDPR), potentially adding a new dimension to the current scope of Net Neutrality. The emergence of new European players should be supported, and sovereignty and security requirements shall be well identified and enforced. AI-based sophisticated automation to deliver services in 6G networks will require additional regulations, based on ethics principles that conform to European standards.” Open RAN won’t replace legacy networks overnight, the two will co-exist for a while, giving companies and regulators time to adapt. But they should start acting as fast as possible.