Open RAN will only ever be a supporting actor in the 5G story?

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Did we expect too much too soon from it, asks Nick Booth?

Don’t bet on Open RAN making an immediate impact on the telecoms industry, or indeed any other, if a new report by CCS Insight is accurate. Open RAN: the long journey from supporting act to lead role, written by Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight, suggests that Open RAN is still in its infancy and will play a supporting role in 5G at best.

The problem is that Open Ran is restrained by the speed of evolution and it won’t arrive at any satisfying conclusion in the near to medium term. Meanwhile, the public cloud and the hyperscalers have no such restraint and are propelled by the forces of disruption.

The report was sponsored by digital wireless inventor InterDigital which now concentrates on research, inventions and licensing.

Open RAN moves at speed of evolution 

"Open RAN remains at an early stage of development and, given the time needed to evolve into a more integrated ecosystem of solutions, will probably play no more than a supporting role in global 5G deployments," says Mann. 

Missing the 5G bus is not a disaster because there’ll be another one along in no time, Mann suggests. In around 2030, the 6G era will loom on the horizon, according to the industry consensus. At that stage most carriers would use open RAN ‘as a default option’, said the report.

"The problem with Open RAN is that it’s unproven at scale and there are doubts over interoperability, pricing and security. Though its momentum is undeniable, we could wait years for it to make a tangible impact on the market, Mann said.

There'll be another G along soon 

That's not to say CCS Insight doesn't see some nearer-term Open RAN opportunities in 5G, but the report suggests these will be niche and limited, such as private or neutral host networks.

The scarcity of opportunities for greenfield Open RAN networks to be built will render Rakuten's expertise, gained from building a ground-breaking system, the eponymously named Rakuten Communications Platform, redundant. So the report suggests. Nokia is recognised as the "most enthusiastic and active supporter of Open RAN" as a result of the commitment expressed by Nokia's CEO Pekka Lundmark (pictured).

Nokia is migrating its RAN portfolios from aggregated and optimised single-vendor systems to modular, open platforms, according to Mann – although fellow analyst Caroline Gabriel has expressed some reservations about Nokia's role in O-RAN. Ericsson is more cautious in its support.

Has Open RAN lost its Huawei?

Huawei has lost the plot having been shut out of participation in Western technology conversations and is continually downplaying the technology's potential. “As questions about who builds telecom networks, how and for whom surface amid an escalating international battle for technology leadership, Open RAN has suddenly become a surprising topic of political debate,” says the report summary.

Open RAN is generating huge excitement but, the report hints that: “the mobile industry is pinning too many hopes too soon on a nascent technology.”