Edge deployments place resources close to applications and the source of their data. But applications like the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles are so full of moving parts, the only practical way to link them up is through radio networks.

The development of Edge has been closely linked with the arrival of 5G, the short-range high bit-rate evolution of mobile phone networks that are still being delivered. But Edge applications will have to be flexible, and use whatever technology suits their needs - and that could be a problem.

Radio Access Networks (RANs) provide connection between connected devices and the core network via the base stations. Though incredibly important, the technology used is often proprietary so equipment from one vendor will rarely interface with other components from rival vendors. As a result, mobile operators are faced with vendor lock-in and use end-to-end solutions from a small set of providers, which can drive up costs and lead to sub-par equipment being used in certain areas.

OpenRAN, however, aims to break down the RAN into component parts and create a unified open interface to connect them. In theory, this allows operators to create bespoke and interoperable best-of-breed deployments. The goal is to create more diversity in the supply chain and allow smaller, specialized companies to enter the market and compete with the incumbents.

Increasing amounts of virtualization, as well as software-defined and cloud architecture in telco infrastructure also means less hardware is required, offering more opportunities for software vendors and more use of commodity off-the-shelf hardware.

But while there is interest in the technology, is it mature enough for prime-time deployment?

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Operators like OpenRAN

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Overall, everyone DCD spoke to said that OpenRAN was generally developing at a decent pace. And while it’s been successful in its goal of diversifying the RAN market, challenges remain, especially around interoperability and proven deployments in urban areas or where legacy technology is a consideration.

Dell’Oro Group predicts OpenRAN will account for more than 10 percent of the overall RAN market by 2025 and total $10 billion, but company vice president Stefan Pongratz acknowledges existing suppliers are well-positioned to do well with OpenRAN, and the approach won’t shift all new investments over to new players.

“OpenRAN is currently trending upwards, although it has yet to reach an inflection point,” says Matt Melester, CTO of venue and campus networks at CommScope. “It is succeeding in its broader goals to have the potential of creating a larger ecosystem, but at this point in time, it is too early to tell how successful it will be.”

Operators are seemingly keen to at least give OpenRAN an opportunity to mature, as it gives them more leverage over equipment makers. As well as groups like the OpenRAN alliance and the Telecom Infra Project, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, Vodafone, and TIM recently signed a memorandum of understanding around OpenRAN in Europe, signaling their commitment to make it the “technology of choice” for RAN.

Vodafone has been a major supporter of OpenRAN. Last year the company said it planned to deploy OpenRAN technology across 2,600 sites in rural Wales and the South West of England and replace the existing Huawei hardware, with deployment starting in 2022. Andrea Donà, UK network & development director for Vodafone, recently told Telecom TV the company had already deployed two OpenRAN sites to its production network as part of its testing process.

Though there are no commercial deployments yet, Vodafone’s test and pilot deployments are one of a number currently in development. Outside of the UK, Vodafone is working with Parallel Wireless and others on OpenRAN trials in Turkey, Ireland, and the DRC. Telefonica has an OpenRAN test underway in Peru and Orange in the Central African Republic.

In the US, new wireless mobile provider Dish has plans to cover 70 percent of the US population by June 2023 with its standalone 5G network based on OpenRAN architecture through Fujitsu and Altiostar. In Japan, Rakuten Mobile is also rolling out standalone 5G networks using OpenRAN technology in Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom is creating an “O-RAN town” in Neubrandenburg and will work with Dell, Fujitsu, NEC, Nokia, Mavenir, and others to deploy equipment at 25 “O-RAN compatible sites” that will provide 4G and 5G services.

“All these deployments are using disaggregated network architectures with multiple vendors able to contribute different elements,” says John Baker, SVP business development at Mavenir, whose company has been involved in several OpenRAN deployments.

These deployments are important, argues Paul Rhodes, OpenRAN and 5G principal consultant, World Wide Technology (WWT), as they are an opportunity for operators to see and validate good over-the-air performance. “Rather than theoretically in a lab with a controlled environment, now they're actually exposing it to the real world,” he says.

Still work to be done before OpenRAN is ready for prime time

Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, and Altiostar Networks have found success in the OpenRAN space, while IT infrastructure providers like HPE and Dell are positioning themselves to provide that commodity hardware from which to run virtualized RAN
technology. At the same time, incumbent vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson are looking at being involved and are virtualizing some of their offerings.

“Even the traditional network equipment manufacturers, who were governing the space for a long time are now having to open up,” says Kalyan Sundhar, VP & GM of 5G edge to core products at Keysight Technologies. “Which tells you that the market is certainly moving in that direction and they have no choice but to move along with it.”

However, despite its fans, few believe OpenRAN is ready for prime time deployment in large urban environments yet. Vodafone’s Donà acknowledged there was still ‘work to be done’ around the maturity of the technology, including interoperability, which is a core issue if the multi-vendor ‘best of breed’ approach is to ever come to fruition. TIM’s network engineering director Marco di Costanzo recently told BNamericas it would be “foolhardy” to say OpenRAN is ready for massive roll-out in large centers.

“There are still many hurdles and challenges to overcome, such as supporting advanced features such as carrier aggregation, MIMO, beamforming/steering and others, which require complex, latency-sensitive interaction between different RAN blocks,” says Prakash Sangam, founder and principal at Tantra Analyst. “OpenRAN has finally graduated from an interesting concept to reality, but it will take considerable time to be mainstream and a default option.”

At the same time, purported national security concerns have led some countries, such as the UK, US, and Australia, to exclude Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from new telco network deployments and - in some cases - to rip their equipment out of existing networks.

These moves highlight the need for market diversification, which could benefit OpenRAN - but the timing could be off: the technology may not yet be ready to take full advantage of the switch.

“We're having to rip out a lot of Huawei equipment by 2023 whilst these interface specifications are still getting developed,” says Paul Graham, partner for technology, media, and telecommunications at law firm Fieldfisher. “They don't have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for this emergent technology to actually emerge.”

Not all the business that was going Huawei is flowing to local incumbents such as Nokia and Ericsson, but the urgency with which some operators need to remove now-forbidden technology means many operators aren’t willing to wait for OpenRAN.

“They've got to do it now, and order the equipment now, and it has to be the equipment that's available on the market right now, as opposed to something that might come on them on the market in 12 months' time,” he says.

A tale of two OpenRANs

OpenRAN is currently making in-roads on greenfield sites, and that will continue. In theory, it can be backward-compatible with existing radio networks for 4G, 3G, or even 2G, but a lack of mature integration options means standalone 5G OpenRAN technology is easier to deploy.

Rakuten in Japan and Dish in the US are opting for greenfield deployments utilizing OpenRAN, and many of the deployments by the incumbent operators are in rural and under-served areas. Vodafone’s first deployment in Wales was at the Builth Wells showground; an area that wouldn’t have much capacity requirement for large parts of the year and therefore couldn’t previously justify the investment of a large roll-out.

“Early greenfield adopters are more likely to include more components from the broader OpenRAN vision while the migration will be more gradual with the existing networks with initial deployments focusing on the O-RAN interface,” says Dell’Oro’s Pongratz. “2021 will be a pivotal year for the OpenRAN movement to assess the readiness with brownfield deployments.”

“Companies like Rakuten or Dish have taken a different, more proactive approach to OpenRAN,” adds Commscope’s Melester. “This is because they will not have to start satisfying massive amounts of users right away. They have more latitude to deal with the teething pain of OpenRAN.”

Likewise, private LTE deployments could be an area where OpenRAN could find success, partly due to the greenfield nature of such rollouts, and the appeal of removing the need to install fiber or rely on satellite at desired sites. OpenRAN's use of open standards and commodity hardware is also a boon.

“If you're building a network from scratch, and you're not looking for compatibility with anything legacy, then standalone represents a great opportunity [for OpenRAN],” says WWT’s Rhodes. “There's a great opportunity for OpenRAN to take an early lead in a sector, and not have to prove itself versus an established competitor.”

Mavenir’s Baker says his company has been involved with 12 such deployments in 2020, including two ‘Industry 4.0’ applications in Germany, Naresuan University in Thailand, two indoor pilot projects in Spain, and the Ørsted windfarm in the North Sea alongside Vilicom.

“OpenRAN is already well equipped to meet the needs of rural and suburban deployments. Development of some of the more sophisticated technologies required for high demand urban centers is proceeding at pace,” he says.

OpenRAN is coming, slowly but surely

A number of people DCD spoke to predict operators are likely to deploy OpenRAN in greenfield, rural, and standalone networks during 2021 and 2022, and also in private deployments.

“By this time next year, I think everybody will have a pilot deployment that's live and broadcasting over the air,” says WWT’s Rhodes. “The majority, if not all of the MNOs in any particular country will have OpenRAN presence and will be nodding rather than shaking their head.”

Many operability standards are quickly being firmed up – the O-RAN alliance released more than 40 specifications in 2020 – and many of the current stumbling blocks around technology will naturally fall away as the technology matures, and and the first commercial deployments will be rolled out.

“I think we will definitely see some very small targeted deployments [in the next 12 months,” says Keysight’s Sundhar. “the integration is going to be very daunting, and for it to be a very general-purpose thing is going to take longer.”

“The industry needs to go through teething pains. New companies will have more time to work out the bugs, as they don’t have the legacy infrastructure to support at the same time,” says Commscope’s Melester, adding that security and power consumption also need work, as well as the interoperability issue.

“In 2021, we’ll start to see some of the teething pain associated with real world OpenRAN deployments. This is only natural. 2024-2025 could see parity with traditional legacy OEMs and the gap will start to close in terms of what traditional vendors will be able to produce versus new entrants.”

System builders with Edge projects will be watching developments closely, as OpenRAN could be a vital component to turn their ideas into reality.