Open RAN: The Long Journey from Supporting Act to Lead Role
Open radio access network (Open RAN) technology has emerged as an important focus for the mobile industry over the past 18 months. Its rapid rise to prominence reflects strong interest from many mobile carriers seeking to reduce their reliance on a very small number of traditional technology suppliers and to improve the economics of network roll-out.
As attention has turned to Open RAN infrastructure technology, non-traditional suppliers such as Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar have eyed a potentially lucrative new market, announcing fledgling but significant partnerships with a range of mobile carriers that raise questions about the competitive position of established players like Nokia and Ericsson.
Trade restrictions placed on Huawei by some national governments have further reduced the choice of 5G network equipment suppliers, thrusting Open RAN into the political spotlight. Although this limited choice has hindered 5G deployment in several markets, it has also promoted new thinking about how to support national communications infrastructure, now more widely appreciated as a social and economic utility in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 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.
But Open RAN's challenges stretch beyond the political arena. Dissenters point to the greater complexity of incorporating an unproven technology platform that could take years to establish standards and product maturity. Cost and security pose additional concerns. The promise of Open RAN might be attractive, but the mobile industry needs to be wary of falling into another hype trap.
This report discusses reasons why Open RAN is generating huge excitement and whether the mobile industry is pinning too many hopes too soon on a nascent technology. It explores contrasting viewpoints from mobile carriers and network suppliers, and focuses on a range of political, commercial and technological tensions that will ultimately determine its long-term success.