What is Open RAN?

    There’s been a quiet revolution unfolding across the global cellular network as fourth generation technologies give way to the fifth. 5G transmissions run two orders of magnitude faster compared to their 4G predecessor, but a lot of infrastructure must be put into place to support the increasing transference of data. 

    While telecoms are upgrading cell towers and other components of their networks, they have been presented with an opportunity to change some of the old ways of doing business in the hopes of reducing costs and driving innovation. From this wellspring emerged the Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) movement, an effort by telecoms to break free of vendor lock-in, and allow more hardware providers to participate in an expensive market with very few players.

    Market Drive for Open RAN

    Under the traditional model, telecommunications equipment vendors made up a small crowd, composed almost exclusively of Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei. Their hardware is proprietary, secretive, and non-interactive with their competitors. Telecoms get locked into a vendor ecosystem and forced to pay high prices as a consequence of that exclusivity. Switching ecosystems is similarly expensive, with similarly high prices demanded by the competition. This locked and controlled marketplace has left the telecoms seeking an alternative, and the demands of 5G networks only further applied pressure to the problem. 

    The answer to this is Open RAN. Members of the industry united in their efforts to develop new standards and specifications that would allow any hardware or software vendor to participate, without the barrier of the proprietary standards that exist today. Imagine building a computer, and every component inside the computer must come from the same manufacturer. When it comes time to upgrade RAM or a CPU, there may be some attractive options out there, but you’re forced to purchase RAM from a single provider. Under the Open RAN model, you can purchase hardware from whomever you please, and the broader system still works.

    Also read: Edge Computing Set to Explode Alongside Rise of 5G

    The Origins of Open RAN

    Many of the formative moments in the Open RAN movement can be traced back to early 2018, when Samsung announced its new partnership with Verizon. Samsung had just become a supplier for the telecom’s network hardware, entering into that once tightly controlled field. Verizon had been seeking new, more open protocols as opposed to the proprietary ones that vendors like Samsung could previously not interact with. Simultaneously, competitors such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, and China Mobile formed the oRAN Alliance, founded on three principles:

    • Lead the industry toward open, interoperable interfaces
    • Minimize the use of proprietary hardwares while maximizing off-the-shelf alternatives
    • Develop and standardize APIs

    “To take full advantage of the flexibility of 5G, we have to go beyond the new radios and change the overall architecture of the end-to-end system,” AT&T’s chief technology officer said at the time. “Open modularity, intelligent software-defined networks, and virtualization will be essential to deliver agile services to our customers. ORAN will accelerate industry progress in these areas.”

    A Boost from DoD

    In 2021, a US Department of Defense initiative encouraged industry to adopt greater openness in communications hardware and software. Fast and fluid communications are essential to lifting the shroud of war in modern combat theaters, and setting up a communications network is a top priority whenever the military is deployed into a new area. In an effort to strengthen its own communications backbone, DoD, in conjunction with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, issued a notice of inquiry to telecoms, requesting that the members of industry seek ways to open up the 5G stack ecosystem, speed up innovation, and increase interoperability. Most importantly, the military wanted ways to choose from a broader pool of hardware vendors to increase their data processing abilities at the edge and in the field.

    Open RAN: Boon or Bust?

    Optimists within the telecom industry hope that by allowing more hardware vendors to participate, the industry at large is better posturing itself for future upgrades, while also lowering the costs of installing or maintaining infrastructure. Radio networks are multi-billion dollar investments, and even minute cost savings on a single component can have ripple effects throughout the network. 

    That notion, however, has been met with skepticism, as early adopters have yet to realize some of the profit potential they foresaw. Industry fragmentation is another challenge that telecoms are navigating. There are many proponents of open RAN, and not all of them are developing the same standards. 

    While the open RAN model has existed in theory for many years, its implementation is still in its infancy. There are still open questions as to how disruptive it will be to the telecom industry, but the major carriers such as AT&T and Verizon remain optimistic. Moreover, even one of the proprietary telecom hardware vendors, Nokia, has joined the fray, working alongside the oRAN Alliance—a sign that even the old guard can sense the changing winds.

    Read next: 5G Cybersecurity Risks and How to Address Them

    Litton Power
    Litton Power
    Litton Power is a writer and public affairs consultant. He has an extensive background in science, technology, and the energy sector, and was a former science communicator at Idaho National Laboratory. He lives in Tennessee where he spends his free time hiking, camping, and building furniture.

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