OpenRAN: The next big trend in telecoms infrastructure?

OpenRAN: The next big trend in telecoms infrastructure? Telcos are slowly warming up to the potential of Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRAN). Vodafone recently became the first telco in the UK to start OpenRAN trials.

Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRAN) seem to be gathering momentum in the telecoms industry. Launched through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) industry association, OpenRAN is an initiative to define and build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology.

This helps operators cut the cost of building mobile networks by lowering the barriers to work with new vendors and improving network economics. With vendor-neutral hardware, the initiative aims to reduce the reliance on a small number of vendors by de-coupling the hardware and software components of the network, and decreasing the massive expenditure incurred on network infrastructure.

Vodafone has become the first telco to trial the OpenRAN technology in the UK, following earlier trials in South Africa and Turkey. The company will also introduce the technology in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique. According to reports, the UK trials will focus on 100+ rural locations, presumably to reduce the exposure to failure. The trials may be extended to other parts of Europe as well.

Meanwhile, a survey has revealed that telcos are keeping a close eye on the developments in the OpenRAN space. In the study, 68% of respondents stated that they are open to exploring OpenRAN for densification demands; 47% pointed towards greenfield deployments in urban areas; 42% wanted to replace their current suppliers; whereas 5% sought validation in rural environments.

Since the majority of network investments are geared towards the access network, telcos want to make sure there are enough alternative suppliers to counter the power balance which is currently tilted towards a few privileged vendors on top of the ecosystem. OpenRAN has the potential to reduce the cost of network deployments and protect telcos from price increases.

However, OpenRAN is still some way off from commercial deployments. These trials are a step in the right direction, but it will take some time for the traditionally inert telco industry to even partly replace a tried and tested solution. The survey also revealed that 28% of respondents are concerned that the performance won’t match their current infrastructure, while 14% are worried about interoperability. The maturity of OpenRAN technology (and possibly new vendors) is seen as a barrier by 11% of the telcos.

So the early signs are promising, but it remains to be seen whether OpenRAN upends the status quo or ends up being an ‘also-RAN’ in the quest for more efficient investments!