RAN stands for radio access network; it includes the antennas and other radio functionalities deployed within a telecom network. Within the telecom industry, the Open RAN was initially touted as a form of advancement in technology to improve efficiency and encourage Innovation. The Open RAN simply means that a telco e.g MTN could purchase and install RAN components from various equipment vendors like Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia etc., and deploy in an interconnected and open platform within its network. Presently, this is not the case as telcos often have to purchase and install proprietary hardware and software, all from a single equipment vendor. That is, hardware purchased from Ericsson will not work interoperably with hardware from Huawei.
The Open RAN has been gaining ground due to the potential for virtualizing and softwarising networking functions within the network. In essence, the telecoms industry is learning from and looking at adapting open platform technologies within the IT industry and hopes to eventually reach a stage where networks can be deployed within the cloud. For instance, in the IT sector, one could easily purchase an HP server and run a software from another vendor successfully and in an interoperable manner with little hitches.
The proponents of Open RAN complain that the equipment vendor market has been heavily dominated by the trio of Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia; as such they suggest that the Open RAN model will open the market to competition and reduce the Capex costs incurred by telcos. They also believe that it would allow for the entry of new and smaller market players who may have developed superior software products that could out beat the trio of equipment vendors (Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia).
As expected, the trio of equipment vendors are not in support of the Open RAN model. Those in opposition to the model suggest that issues like network security, customisation, scalability, enhanced features etc., could hinder the acceptance of this model. How do you test a software version of a RAN without exposing the networks of million subscribers to risks? Some even went as far as saying operators are simply not ready to expose their networks to such risks yet.
On the surface, Open RAN sounds like an evolution in technology within the telecom space, with pros and cons until the US made its stance known on the issue. The US seems to be in strong favour of this model and many seem to believe that the US stance may stem from the fact that it believes that the model may help break Huawei’s dominance in this space. Interestingly, Huawei may not be the only affected player here; Nokia and Ericsson may be hard hit by wide acceptability of this model. Will Europe therefore support or reject the US stance here, as its players may be affected?
Will politics help accelerate or hinder the acceptability of the Open RAN model? Only time will tell.