Vodafone’s OpenRAN trial is a swallow not a summer, but an important step

Large mobile operators have been protesting for years about their small selection of RAN vendors, and the way the large OEMs lock them in with proprietary implementations, even of standards-based architectures. With Huawei potentially being barred from some countries’ 5G networks, the choice threatens to get even smaller, with the accompanying negative impact on competition, innovation and pricing.

Hence the support of several leading operators for various industry initiatives to promote fully open RAN platforms. Last month, NTT Docomo deployed a pre-commercial 5G RAN in Tokyo, Japan using open interfaces defined by the Linux Foundation’s ORAN Alliance. This month it’s the turn of Vodafone to take a lead, building on last year’s RFIs (requests for information) for open networks and announcing a large-scale field trial of networks based on OpenRAN specification, as devised by the Facebook-supported Telecom Infra Project (TIP).

But there is still a long way to go before the dream of open networks is anywhere close to being realized. The emerging open interfaces and virtualized platforms are largely unproven in large-scale networks, and there are several strong operator-driven initiatives which have yet to find common ground or agree on a united set of specifications. Unless they do – or just one group wins out by virtue of operator adoption – the problem of vendor lock-in will be replaced by another problem, fragmentation, which brings its own dead ends and poor economics.

In areas where operators are feeling an urgency to deploy quickly and robustly, such as fixed wireless access (FWA) in some markets, there is the temptation to go with trusted architectures rather than take a risk on something new. That may not matter too much in FWA, where the issues of wide area coverage, made affordable by multivendor interoperability, are peripheral. But once a standard or a vendor gets a strong toehold thanks to early deployments – whether FWA or 5G NR Non-Standalone – the decision to make a radical architecture change a few years later becomes harder.

But the leading lights behind the open RAN are determined to build confidence among the far larger base of uncommitted operators. Large trials and pre-commercial networks will be important to build that confidence and enable new vendors to show what they can do in live environments. The RAN is the biggest piece of capex and opex in a mobile network, of course, but to achieve the best economics and greatest flexibility for 5G, the whole network must be disaggregated, virtualized and opened up, as Enrique Blanco, Telefónica’s CTO, discussed this week with regards to the core network.

Turning high levels of interest in open networks, into high levels of deployment and functionality, will be a difficult process, but there are some big names putting their weight behind the effort – and even if the result is a compromise on the current visions, it will certainly have shifted the vendor landscape, and forced the established OEMs to take a new approach to interoperability and pricing.