One of the fears that many operators express about the rise of open RAN architectures is the potential for the market to fragment between several different approaches, which would sacrifice economies of scale and therefore economic benefits. To address this fear, it is important for the key open network organizations, especially the high profile O-RAN Alliance, to work within a broader cooperative framework that includes other bodies focused on the open RAN – such as Open Networking Foundation and Small Cell Forum – as well as more established standards bodies and industry groupings.
An important step in this direction was somewhat lost in the pre-holiday lull, but the O-RAN Alliance announced a new co-operation agreement with one of the most powerful and operator-driven groups, the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance.
The two organizations said they would work together initially on activities related to transport for disaggregated RANs, and later extend their partnership to other areas.
Anita Doehler, CEO of the NGMN Alliance, said in a statement: “We are looking forward to a close co-operation with the O-RAN Alliance and to exchange our views on the RAN decomposition for 5G networks, in particular the various RAN functional splits and the transport requirements to support the various deployment options. As a wide number of industry activities are related to this subject, we also look to encourage industry alignment.”
Alex Choi, ORAN’s COO, added: “As the transport is the glue that connects radio sites, edge data centers and centralized clouds in a disaggregated RAN architecture, significant effort is required to design and define a robust and scalable transport to meet stringent requirements of future networks.”
Such cooperations, in terms of real world impact, can range anywhere from delivering fundamental joint specifications, to going no further than friendly press releases. But it is important to operator confidence that different groups are seen to be working together, since if there is one fear that looms larger than fragmentation in the minds of MNOs, it is that open equipment and software will not be ready and commercially deployable at scale within their preferred timescales for 5G virtualized RAN.
Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK, sums up the more cautious side of the operator community, saying in a pre-holiday media briefing that “We won’t be waiting around for open RAN.” This is despite the fact that the UK operator has had to rethink its 5G RAN strategy completely, since it had initially chosen Huawei as its sole supplier, but was forced to change its mind after the government introduced restrictions on the Chinese vendor. Three has since chosen Ericsson as its 5G vendor.
Finnegan added: “We want to keep our options open as well, but I don’t think [open RAN’s] going to impact 5G maybe as much as it might do further technologies down the line because with 5G most people will have chosen their provider at this point … I wouldn’t say the ship has sailed, but it is close to sailing because everyone is close to rolling out and you’re not going to change midstream.”
Other operators are more sanguine about the opportunity to introduce open RAN to their 5G networks and many are running parallel RFIs and even RFPs – one for expansion of the main macro network and one for additional build-outs such as enterprise networks. Vodafone has famously committed to supporting open RAN in a large percentage of its sites across its footprint and in the UK, it has pledged to support the architectures in 20% of sites by 2027.
And there have been other signs of progress for O-RAN over the past few weeks. In the Middle East, Saudi-based STC is working with vRAN software provider Altiostar and became the first operator in the region to run O-RAN sessions in a live network. VP of infrastructure, Eng. Khaled Aldharrab, said: “Open RAN is a large and crucial part of STC’s future virtualized infrastructure. This technology is promising to change the way we currently think of network solutions.”