Bumps in the road for open RAN

US actions against vendors of 5G radio-access network gear and challenges about whether standards will actually lower the costs of service providers deploying 5G networks.

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Open standards for radio access networking (RAN) technology have long been hyped as a way for mobile network operators to control the costs of 5G deployment, but some experts are beginning to question that potential, and legal difficulties for vendors working on the standard continue to arise.

The idea behind open RAN is relatively simple. Using a standards-based approach to carrier radio equipment would allow carriers to mix and match the gear they use in base stations--freeing them from the traditional vertical integration of such equipment and potentially making the market more competitive, driving prices down.

But this requires a considerable degree of coordination from companies like Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung that aren’t used to working cooperatively with one another. And some reports suggest that the hype around open RAN is considerably exaggerated.

For one thing, according to analyst John Strand, open RAN’s ability to drive cost down is less clear than has been claimed by its backers. Increased competition is all well and good, but a diversified vendor portfolio increases complexity and potentially causes customers to lose out on volume discounts that would otherwise be obtained in a traditional, single-vendor purchase.

“It may be that some OpenRAN providers can offer equipment more cheaply on some parameters, but the cost advantage may not be significant when considering all the costs such as supply, availability, energy consumption, security, warranty, network integration, equipment matching, new contracts and service level agreements etc.,” Strand wrote in a repornt.

The hype around open RAN is short on hard factual underpinnings, according to Strand, arguing that most of the claims about the technology’s efficacy come from advocacy organizations and companies that have a vested interest in open RAN’s success. He particularly points to claims that come from western governments that have embraced open RAN as a potential alternative to low-cost Chinese hardware manufacturers, particularly Huawei and ZTE.

“While there is nothing illegal about citing advocacy organizations, government agencies are supposed to be above touting advocacy as fact, science, and official policy,” Strand wrote.

Government policy worries

US policy has proved to be a stumbling block already. Nokia temporarily paused its involvement in the leading industry group, the O-RAN Alliance, amid concerns over the participation of Chinese companies on the Department of Commerce’s banned list.

Those specific concerns have since been resolved, and Nokia has resumed full participation in the group’s work, but a similar issue cropped up late last month, as the Commerce Department added another company, New H3C Semiconductor Technologies to the list. That company is a partial subsidiary of HPE/Aruba, which could complicate the US firm’s participation in the O-RAN Alliance.

HPE said in a statement that it is “evaluating what impact, if any, the Commerce Department’s action has on our ability to remain members of the Alliance,” but indicated that it had “no plans” to divest itself of H3C.

Testing and deployment continue

Nevertheless, the development of open RAN is still moving forward, as participants in the O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project to create new specifications and perform interoperability testing, according to Gartner.

Gartner’s most recent hype-cycle report for communications service-provider networks acknowledges that open RAN is still at least two years away from maturity.

“Open interface is the key to achieve best-of-breed vendor selection by balancing features and cost,” according to the report, which also said the continued use of vertically integrated, vendor-locked radio equipment could contribute to delays in 5G deployment.

“RAN is the last non-virtualized network component,” said Gartner.

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