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EXPLAINED: What If Mobile Cos Could Switch Networks At Will? Why World's Gearing Up For 'Open RAN'

All major mobile phone companies in India are pursuing open RAN tech for 5G rollout

All major mobile phone companies in India are pursuing open RAN tech for 5G rollout

A handful of companies rule the mobile network equipment space, but that could change with the advent of 'Open RAN'

The leaders of the Quad countries have underlined their commitment to it and the biggest telecom and tech companies around the world are gearing up for its rollout. Given all the flexibility and advantage it provides, Open RAN is set to be the future of mobile communications and it is virtually waiting just around the corner, ready to revolutionise how telecom companies operate. Here’s all you need to know.

What Is Open RAN?

‘RAN’ stands for radio access network and is the final, critical component of any mobile network and to know what it involves you need look no further than to the ubiquitous cell phone towers that now dot any urban landscape. When you use your cellphone, any information you receive or send is packaged via the cellphone tower. The hardware and software that enables this transmission to and fro is what is known as the RAN. But while mobile service providers, or mobile network operators are common the makers of RAN systems belong to a select club.

There are basically five major players in the RAN space and together they control more than 95 per cent of the market. Two of these companies — Huawei, ZTE — are Chinese, two European — Ericsson, Noki — while there is a third Asian entity in the South Korean Samsung. In fact, Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia control 80 per cent of the market, says a report by consultancy firm Deloitte.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition (ORPC) notes that “mobile networks have typically been deployed using fully integrated cell sites where the radio, hardware and software are provided by a single manufacturer as a ‘closed’ proprietary solution". Thus, all the sub-components in the RAN, and how they interact with each other, are private, that is, they are “either not standardised, or controlled by a single company".

What Are The Advantages Of Open RAN?

First, the disadvantages of the present ‘closed’ RAN universe. As would be evident, using proprietary or licensed software purchased from a single vendor means that “a network couldn’t be deployed using radios from one vendor with RAN hardware and software from another vendor". That limits most network operators to deploying networks using a single vendor in a geographic region.

Further, to effect even a minor change or update to the wireless network potentially involves an overhaul of the entire physical hardware, which Deloitte says is “a costly, manual and time-consuming process". But you would wonder that if the system has worked so far (after all, you are able to use mostly seamless mobile phone services), why the need to replace it with Open RAN. Well, for this we have to thank the advent of the 5G age.

Since rolling out 5G services would require most network operators to update or change to new systems, “they have the opportunity to adopt" open RAN architectures. According to ORPC, by adopting open RAN systems, “we move to an environment where networks can be deployed with a more modular design without being dependent upon a single vendor".

A key benefit is interoperability and the scope it allows network operators to “pick and choose among best-of-breed solution providers". Think of it like the option that Indian cellphone users have of porting their connection to another service provider.

Open RAN is designed to lower overall costs and spur innovation by allowing new players to enter into a space that has so far been dominated only by a handful of companies. Further, since virtualised software integration is an important part of open RAN, it will enable updates to be pushed out more swiftly by network operators.

What Is The Pace of Open RAN Adoption?

The Deloitte report says the “open RAN market is still in its early days" and that there have been only 35 eployments of this architecture so far around the world, mostly in “greenfield, rural and emerging markets". But it does note that momentum is now growing around open RAN and that adoption should “accelerate rapidly thanks to the logic of its network design and its strategic alignment with carrier needs".

No wonder then that there is a buzz around open RAN and there are several industry-level “alliances" that are working on architectures, standards and protocols to shape the ecosystem. The prominent ones include the O-RAN Alliance, which came together as a worldwide carrier-led effort in 2018 while Facebook launched the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) in 2016. Then there is ORPC, which the Quad has picked to coordinate the “industry dialogue on Open RAN deployment and adoption" that it has launched.

Reports say that Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone are all part of the O-RAN Alliance and the major Indian mobile phone service providers are all working on 5G networks based on Open RAN architecture.

Open RAN also fits in with the Centre’s Make In India push and it has included core transmission equipment, 4G/5G and next generation radio access network and wireless equipment in the performance-linked incentive scheme (PLI) that it announced for the telecom sector in May this year.

What Is The China Angle?

Among the factors that can accelerate the move to open RAN would be any move by governments to ban already installed 5G architecture if it has been provided by a vendor that is not deemed to be trustworthy from the national security perspective. That is what happened when the US clamped down on the use of equipment from Huawei. India, too, has said it will allow only trusted vendors to provide equipment to network operators in the country.

That is because Huawei and other Chinese suppliers are seen to be controlled by China’s authoritarian government and it is suspected that they could be providing equipment that can be used for spying.

As 5G emerges as the tech battleground between the world’s top two economies, the US has accused Huawei of stealing technology even as China has raced ahead with development of 5G technologies — Huawei leads the worldwide list for the most number of 5G patents and, along with another Chinese company, ZTE, holds more than a fifth of all 5G patents.

Diversification and security of telecommunication networks was a highlight of the recently held Quad meet in US with the leaders saying that they will collaborate with industry players for “advancing the deployment of secure, open, and transparent 5G and beyond-5G networks". The Quad joint statement said that the grouping is looking to “foster innovation and promote trustworthy vendors and approaches such as Open RAN".

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first published:September 29, 2021, 18:41 IST