How can startups innovate Open RAN?

Experts cite agility, cost savings and support as key focus areas

At its essence, Open RAN disaggregates Radio Access Network (RAN) functionality from specialized, bespoke hardware to vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology based on open interfaces. This enables Communication Service Providers (CSPs) to source individual components from multiple suppliers. A more diverse supply chain drives increased competition, competition sparked by innovation. Startups, by their nature, often seek to create disruptive innovation.

“Relative to larger companies, startups tend to be more agile,” said Dr. Doug Pulley, Picocom’s chief solutions architect. Smaller, more focused teams help foster more effective internal communication, he added. That focus lends itself, in turn, to faster decision-making.

“They also tend to be more laser-focused on what they’re doing because quite often, startups might only have sort of one market and one product for that,” Pulley said, speaking during RCR Wireless News’ Open RAN Global Forum 2022.

Manish Gangey, head of R&D at Bharti Airtel, agreed. Larger companies by necessity employ policies and procedures that may stifle or tamp down agility and innovation that can come naturally to smaller businesses. 

“I feel that this is a complementary ecosystem,” said Gangey. “We need to have both; one to make sure that we create the opportunities, and the other to make sure they exploit those opportunities.”

When it comes to Open RAN, Gangey described the technology in terms of democratization. Open RAN has “really opened up a bunch of things, in terms of interfaces being open, the standardization of things,” he said.

The O-RAN Alliance’s focusing opening up Radio Intelligent Controller (RIC) access to third-party apps is an area Gangey points to as an example. 

“It opens up a framework which allows the smaller innovations to get into the network much faster than they would have done otherwise,” he said.

Efforts like RIC xApp and rApp development lend themselves to startup innovation because they’re pure software, said Pulley. 

“The software domains are less capital-intensive, perhaps,” he said. Software developers are free from having to build chip prototypes, a costly capital endeavor. But that doesn’t exclude everyone, Pulley cautions – there’s plenty of room for startup innovators there, too.

“Here I am, in another startup doing [Systems on Chips, or SOCs] for infrastructure with a focus on small cells, so it’s clearly possible to do this end of the scale too,” he added. “That shows there’s definitely a broad range of opportunities for startups to contribute to the ecosystem.”

Opening up markets to more supplier choice – a cornerstone of the Open RAN concept – presents what Pulley described as “the classical market competition” to reduce equipment costs. But firms looking to exploit new market opportunities presented by Open RAN should focus on innovation as a way to deliver cost savings, said Pulley. 

“Either direct cost savings or to indirectly by providing performance gains to get more done with the same amount of cost,” he said.

Gangey explained that disaggregating RAN functions improves ecosystem transparency for the CSP.

“In a closed ecosystem there are a lot of intermediaries which create what we call marginal stacking,” said Gangey. “Once you start to disaggregate the system some of those margins start to become very visible. And once things are visible you have a mechanism to really negotiate them down.”

One big challenge for startups, Gangey said, is achieving economy of scale.

“This is where the biggest challenge lies for startups. By design, the volumes are sitting with the incumbents. How do you go and create the sort of volume?”

Gangey sees a solution for startups and other innovators who can take the time to work through local market opportunities, whether it’s navigating regulatory issues or helping CSPs with core operational problems they face.

“The number of problems that we have with day-to-day operations, I mean you can actually build a dozen startups just solving them right… Once we open up this Pandora’s Box on the operations, people start to see where they can bring in the value,” said Gangey, whose company recently added a million 5G subscribers in its first few weeks of 5G operations in India.

Open RAN hardware and software evolution aren’t the only place that companies can innovate, said Pulley. “Support is always an underestimated cost in any company,” he said.

“How well our stuff works, how quickly it gets integrated, and how quickly that happens is very visible to our customers and our customers’ customers. That I would say is the number one way to really differentiate the hell out of yourself to other people,” he said.

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