What is Open RAN?
Why does the most widely used technology on the planet require 10 years and a forklift to upgrade?
Like almost everything in Telecoms, Open RAN is complicated. What is Open RAN? It’s not a single idea. It’s not a single product or service. It’s not an optimization technique or path towards improved efficiency.
Heck, it’s hardly even an agreed term. You’ll find references in the literature to Open RAN, OpenRAN (my preference), ORAN, and O-RAN (see e.g., [1, 2, 3, 4]). I’m not aware that there is a commonly accepted term. I’ll use the term Open RAN and will use that throughout this article. But, whatever it’s called, it’s easy to grasp.
Open RAN is essentially 2 foundational ideas:
- The disaggregation of network functionality from the underlying hardware. In other words, software-defined functionality.
- The specification of discrete functional blocks having well-defined interfaces. In other words, modularity.
These ideas are both pretty simple.
Note: the term „OpenRAN” is used by Telecom Infra Project. O-RAN with a „dash” or hyphen is used by the O-RAN Alliance. „Open RAN” is used to refer to the overall movement of opening up the RAN by disaggregating hardware and software and creating open interfaces between them.
Disaggregation means the desired functionality is implemented in software, with as little dependence as possible on specific hardware. The software should be able to run almost anywhere on general-purpose, commonly available hardware. This is not a radical notion. It is entirely consistent with today’s best practices of virtualization and containerization. The virtualization hypervisor and the containerization runtime strip away all hardware specificity. Disaggregation makes software relatively portable, and gives the MNO tremendous flexibility in their network architecture. The concept of disaggregation is so simple it is a little surprising that it holds the possibility to radically alter the Telecoms business. But it does. We’ll get to that.
Discrete functions with well-defined interfaces
Today, the ideas of open APIs and standard interfaces are so mainstream that you’re forgiven for wondering why they are not more common in Telecoms. GSM, Global System for Mobile Communications, tried this approach 30 years ago. The European 2G GSM standard was developed to allow MNOs to use equipment from different vendors. GSM defined blocks of functionality using standard interfaces. But it was a different technology world back then. The vendors did not want to play along and had enough power to thwart the nascent standard. By the time 3G was defined, GSM’s standard interfaces were ignored.
What motivates Open RAN?
Several factions making common causes are driving interest in Open RAN. MNOs are keen to reduce their reliance on a dwindling number of suppliers and avoid the lock-in of proprietary solutions. The software industry, being much larger today than it was in the GSM era, would like the opportunity to expand into Telecoms. The public cloud providers also see the chance to grow their addressable markets. And as the Internet has continued to grow and expand its reach into every aspect of life, the pace of change continues to accelerate. Innovation is surely one of the most significant motivating factors.
Some people like to cast Open RAN as a battle between Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and traditional telecom manufactures. Today, there are only 3 traditional telecom manufacturers: Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia. Most of the others are too small (like Samsung, ZTE), have been acquired, changed their business models, or gone bankrupt. This concentration causes deep concern among mobile operators. The concentration of basic telecoms capabilities into so few providers is a worry.
Having only 3 suppliers to choose from gives these companies enormous power over their MNO customers. For years, the relationship between the vendors and MNOs has been complex. MNOs dislike being locked into the proprietary solutions offered by the vendors and having no leverage. But the MNOs also liked having a single provider to help manage the network. This practice is so pervasive that there is an inside joke that using only one provider gives the MNO “a single throat to choke.” As MNOs have become ever more reliant on this vendor relationship, the perception has grown that the vendors were charging dearly for being that throat.
Avoiding Vendor Lock-In
The are several problems associated with relying on the proprietary solutions offered by the traditional vendors. A proprietary solution from one vendor will not work with the solution of another vendor. So once the choice of the vendor has been made, tremendous sums will be spent to build a network. Most of it will be paid to that single proprietary vendor. Worse, there is little opportunity to negotiate better prices. Once a vendor has been chosen, they can charge almost any amount they want. They know that the only recourse available to the MNO is to switch vendors. And switching vendors is very expensive. To change vendors means the MNO will have to buy almost a completely new network. The costs are huge! So as a negotiating tactic, threatening to buy from another vendor is a rather idle threat. And the vendors all know it.
Not repeating the OTT Debacle
Do you remember when mobile commerce was first becoming a reality? In the mid to late 3G era, companies came up with business models selling to mobile subscribers. Facebook, Youtube, Netflix, the Instant Messaging apps, and others, those companies needed higher bandwidth and greater coverage to cater to their audiences. 4G was not yet deployed. The MNOs could not serve these Over-The-Top (OTT) companies. So, the companies simply found ways to solve their connectivity problems for themselves. The MNOs were bypassed and mostly locked out of this sizable new revenue stream. The MNOs would prefer to not repeat that mistake.
In the days since the OTT players bypassed the MNOs, another industry has arisen: the Hyperscalers, or the public Cloud providers. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, (I’ve heard these referred to as the „Fab Five”) and others have become among the largest companies in the world by making it very easy to virtualize functions for many kinds of networks. As the Internet has grown, these companies have grown right along with it. Expanding their reach into Telecoms is natural, as we’ll discuss in a later article.
Another industry that has grown tremendously over the last 3 decades is the Independent Software Vendors, ISVs. As Marc Andreessen once said, “software is eating the world.” He has made a fortune backing companies that write software. Opening the Telecoms Market to ISVs should be a terrific opportunity for them. They’ve been coding standard interfaces for decades and will be well-positioned to expand into an industry supporting standard interfaces.
The last motivation for Open RAN that I will mention is innovation. The mobile industry has for years defined technology generations in roughly 10-year intervals. The reasons for this are many. One is certainly that the vendors needed time to develop and build the next generation of technology, and then needed enough time to sell that technology so that they could recoup their investment. The MNOs, too, needed time to recoup their investment in the latest technology.
In this aspect, the interests of the vendors and their MNO customers were well aligned. But Telecom technology is not monolithic. It’s dynamic, moving forward on many fronts simultaneously. The 10-year cycle of Mobile technology generations has long been an anachronism. To force customers to wait 10 years for the latest innovations to be offered is no longer workable. The industry needs a way to deploy new technology much faster. Think about how the apps on your mobile phone are enhanced. Many apps are upgraded 2 or 3 times or more each month. Each new upgrade enhances the functionality or improves the security. Can you imagine having to wait for these enhancements until you bought a new phone? Ludicrous!
Open RAN solves several problems that have long-plagued mobile Telecoms. For this reason alone, I believe its growth and success are assured. But there is so much more to be explored about Open RAN. It should be a fascinating journey. Join me, won’t you?
RIMEDO Labs Resources
- The O-RAN Whitepaper: Sign up for our newsletter to download: The O-RAN Whitepaper
- Blog posts: Other blog posts regarding the O-RAN: 1. Introduction to O-RAN: Concept and Entities, 2. O-RAN Architecture, Nodes, and Interfaces, 3. near-Real-Time RIC (RAN Intelligent Controller), 4. O-RAN Use Cases: Traffic Steering
- Webinar: A video recording from a webinar discussing the above aspects, and architecture, RIC internals, use cases, with a special focus on traffic steering: O-RAN Architecture and Use Cases – YouTube
- Slides: Sign up for our newsletter to get a free copy of slides on O-RAN Architecture and Use Cases
- Training: Sign up for our O-RAN System Overview Course.
- Poster (High quality, printer-friendly, A3): Subscribe to get your O-RAN Poster copy.
Russell Lundberg has 30+ years of experience working in mobile technology for MNOs around the world, specializing in greenfield buildouts, quality of service, cost-effective operations, 5G, and Open RAN. Presently Russell is Principal at Intelefy LLC, consulting to Mobile Network Operators and others interested in wireless technologies. He also helps Telecom Pros develop their careers through outreach, education, and mentorship. Intelefy has hosted over 10,000 Telecom Pros in our training webinars. At RIMEDO Labs, Russell serves as an Advisory Board Member.
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