Kathy Gibson is at Mobile World Congress 2022 – While the IT industry has steadily shifted to open and interoperable systems, the telecommunications industry has kept its systems stubbornly closed – but the new era of rapid change and innovation means that openness is now an imperative.

Open RAN (radio access network) technology is emerging as the hot new topic in the telco space as a means to helping operators stay up to date with changing customer needs.

Maite Aparicio, Telefonica’s head of Open RAN, says Open RAN allows the company to expand its business models and reduce vendor lock-in. Opening up the technology means systems are more cost-effective and conducive to innovation.

In addition, Open RAN allows for enriched RAN ecosystems, while virtual and flexible RAN architecture allows for new use cases and differentiated features like automation and network slicing.

The technology still presents some challenges, she adds, mostly related to time-to-market and integration costs, many of which will be addressed as it matures.

There is still an issue with industry readiness, the time if takes to carry out interoperability tests, integration of legacy infrastructure and systems, and the acquisition of new skills.

Aparicio says Telefonica is pushing for industry alignment around Open RAN, with standardisation bodies, operators, vendors and governmetns getting on to the same page.

She says the telco’s ongoing activities with Open RAN offers some lessons for issues that need to be addressed.

“There are challenges and concerns that must be solved before we can see the mass adoption of Open RAN,” she says. “Although there is constant evolution and Open RAN is being improved to have parity with traditional vendors, there is still a journey ahead of learning and implementation of best practices following standardisation and industry guidance.”

Azita Arvani, GM of Rakuten Symphony, decries the traditional lack of openness in the telco industry. “I came from a computer science background, where we know software is eating the world, to a world where telcos still operate on custom solutions that are hard to innovate on.

“These systems limit the operators’ ability to introduce new services and limit their business models.

“So the move to software-based networks is overdue. We talk about 5G and how it will enable digital transformation for other industries, but we are not transformed ourselves.

“We think the time has come.”

Seizo Onoe, chief standardisation strategy officer for NTT, agrees that there is more to be done around Open RAN standards and avoiding vendor lock-in.

The O-RAN Alliance has been set up to reshape the RAN industry towards more intelligent, open networks, and members now include operators and vendors.

“Open RAN has already been commercialised, but we need more effort to complete the ecosystem transformation,” Onoe says.

Keys to success, he believes, are more operator interest, more involvement from major vendors, more emerging technology vendors, and more public-private partnerships.

Onoe points out that Open RAN and virtual RAN (vRAN) are often referred to as being interchangeable, but they are, in fact, different concepts.

“The next step in the Open RAN journey is virtualisation, which is the disaggregation of hardware and software – but this not necessarily open,” he stresses.

“What we need to be pursuing is Open vRAN.”

Rob Soni, head of RAN architecture at VMware, agrees that virtual RAN is not necessarily open – but points out that virtualisation creates the environment that allows openness to happen.

It does this by allowing for the true disaggregation of hardware and software, even within the software layers.

“The rate of innovation has always been limited by the rate of integration by individual vendors – now they have an opportunity to do interoperability and innovation at different layers of the stack.

“We provide a software platform so our partners can innovate on their own platform. And we have onboarded most of the software vendors, who can run their network functions for Open RAN at scale.

“It’s correct that virtualisation doesn’t equal open, but the combination of hardware plus VMware software offers an opportunity for other innovation on other software layers.

“And we have created an open interface with RAN so operators can innovate on the radio itself.”

Open RAN translates into benefits for the operator, Soni says. “They can reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO) and simplify operations.
“At the end of the day, though, the operators need to change the user experience. Now they have the opportunity to introduce new features that they wouldn’t have been able to do with traditional RAN.

“This is about introducing new application that unlock value for the operators and help them create new revenue streams.

“The technology is all very interesting, but operators need to sell services to consumers and, by bringing intelligence into the network, they have the opportunity to shift the way users experience services.

“Without that, Open RAN could come to nothing.”

Open RAN, with its open, disaggregated and distributed features, is a key driver for future 6G networks. It offers a flexible supply chain, built-in innovation, and lower network costs.