Special Report: Open RAN impatience
When any major change of architecture is looming in telecoms, intense impatience sets in. Repeated generations of experiences tell us that large telcos move slowly and that changes to networks and processes will take years to be fully adopted, in the face of the overriding risk of degrading the customer experience, with a knock-on effect on key KPIs from ARPU to churn to usage. But operators, investors and users continue to react over-optimistically to each new development, amid over-promising by some vendors and a strange brand of wishful thinking.
So 5G is not yet delivering the ARPU increases some had targeted (see item below on Lightshed’s analysis of this issue), largely because it is not really delivering the futuristic applications that were touted for it in the pre-commercial period (most of us are still waiting for the remote surgery and many operators, as Zain shows, are prioritizing the challenges of 5G voice first).
Open RAN and vRAN are the latest examples of trends that have potential to transform the operators’ business models and cost bases over time, but cannot deliver those benefits overnight. That is already creating impatience and even the threat of a backlash, among commentators and media, but also among operators.
Yet to succeed in the dramatic way outlined by its supporters, Open RAN must do no less than disrupt a huge supply chain that is dominated by a few powerful players; while persuading operators with generations of legacy equipment and processes in place to throw all that up in the air and adopt the entirely different architectures and skills of the cloud.
Maturing the networks and services to the point that most operators feel confident about deploying them will take years, especially in public macro networks, and even pro-Open RAN operators (bar the greenfields, which have the luxury of starting from scratch) are looking at 4-6 years before all the pieces are in place to support a heavily loaded 5G urban macro network with cloud-native, multivendor architectures. But this is about more than the network itself – there is also the need for operators to migrate from their old software, processes and organizational structures as they embrace automation; and for vendors and some operators to build ecosystems and incubate innovations.
All of this will take time. The efforts of trailblazers such as Rakuten are valuable as proof points, and because it is attracting start-ups to its Symphony platform in an effort to accelerate the development of an Open RAN that is deployable even by smaller operators. The establishment of labs and testing processes by large operators is another essential step, as are the deployments of Open RAN small cells in enterprise environments where real world performance can be tested and tuned without risking impact on the macro networks.
But the effort that Vodafone must make to whittle down its huge array of OSS (operations support systems) applications highlights the long road that large operators face to adopt new architectures. Automation cannot be achieved overnight – old applications and teams of people need to be retired first. But until automation is implemented to a significant extent, one of the chief cost benefits of cloud-based RAN will remain elusive. Rakuten, for all its ambition in its own Japanese roll-out, recognizes the challenges and is calling on other MNOs not to be impatient, or to regard Open RAN as a magic bullet. Instead, operators need to put clear action plans in place, with milestones set out for the next five years or more, and then to manage the expectations of their partners, suppliers and investors.