Open RAN just one vector of technological and economic openness
Being open to collaborative problem solving accelerates time to innovation, return
Open radio access networks are a hot topic in telecom right now with major, multinational operators looking to break out of the big, end-to-end vendor ecosystem potentially in favor of smaller companies working together to foster hardware and software interoperability. This gives operators the ability to select best-in-breed solutions and remove cost from the RAN, the largest line item on any capex sheet; lowering network costs, so the story goes, will foster innovation and accelerate deployments which would, in turn, accelerate time-to-revenue.
This long move to open source made its way from software development into telecom. One notable and ongoing project is AT&T’s concurrent moves to virtualize its network and create an automated management platform. The carrier’s Domain 2.0 work gave way to the open-source code base for the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) and continues today with the creation of the Airship under-cloud platform.
Japan’s Rakuten Mobile is the poster child of vRAN at the moment, given their very public work with their vendor ecosystem, greenfield build, commercial LTE launch earlier this month, and impressive capex and opex benefits attributed to the open, virtual network approach. At a press event in February, CTO Tareq Amin said Rakuten Mobile’s network is “truly the world’s first open RAN deployment today across any telco. It is running at scale. It is absolutely real. It is not pie in the sky.” He said the virtualized network, when compared to legacy builds, cost 40% less to deploy and 30% less to operate.
But let’s pull the lens back–way back. Perhaps the most macro type of openness in play globally is economic openness, itself a major factor in telecom given the combination of distributed supply chains and geographic considerations that figure into national telecom regulations and strategies. Huawei, for instance, is hugely successful despite facing constant challenges from the U.S. both domestically and by proxy in other geographies.
Huawei’s Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei discussed this broad issue in sessions with the media, noting that “economic globalization was first proposed by Western countries…I don’t think it’s realistic for us to go back and divide the world in two.” He said that while Huawei uses components from U.S. manufacturers, it has alternative options. Huawei is on an “entity list” maintained by the Department of Commerce and it’s transactions with U.S. suppliers are closely monitored and subject to regulation including not being able to sell to Huawei.
“I think collaboration for shared success is vital in today’s world. Working together to reinforce each other will lead to shared success,” Huawei’s CEO said. “Openness is conducive to economic development, and globalization is in the interest of the U.S. If the U.S. government comes up with policies that ban the sale of certain things to certain countries, American companies will make less money, which will affect the U.S. economy.”
So how does this tie to open RAN? To combat Huawei beyond potential impediments to its supply of U.S. goods, federal officials are looking to fund the rip-and-replace of Huawei kit for rural domestic networks and also considering funding in U.S.-based telecom providers, including open RAN vendors. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC was planning on hosting a vRAN day in Washington D.C.
Parallel Wireless is a major provider in this space and, in an interview with RCR Wireless News, CEO Steve Papa touched on the notion of openness as it relates to RAN and also how geopolitical machinations and history should inform lawmakers’ current postures toward fostering a U.S. telecom ecosystem.
He said the open RAN business model match the generational shifts in cellular. “The economics of a coverage technology and architecture don’t scale well as a capacity architecture. The entire business models of the incumbent vendors don’t work and don’t map to what the people deploying the equipment require given the economic realities.”
Papa continued: “O-RAN is exposing this to more innovators to participate, which is good. But more importantly, the U.S. government is waking up to its role in supporting the semiconductor market.” He noted the Made in China 2025 focus on developing semiconductor expertise and other moves he characterized as “a state actor tipping to playing field…Our commercial market in communications infrastructure equipment is being distorted by a state actor. We can let that happen or we can counter it in a similar way.”
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