Don’t let bad press about Open RAN sink your private 5G plans

Use RFIs and RFPs to get good information about private 5G gear and to avoid being duped by stories possibly generated by 'unnamed vendors' looking to lock you into their products.

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Here’s a paradox for you. Why is a technology that’s supported at the planning level by 90% of the telcos, and by the majority of enterprises, getting a bunch of negative press? Why is something that’s both 5G and open not being applauded by all?

I’m referring to the Open RAN model for 5G, of course, and the answer to all these “Why?” questions could say a lot about our industry and have a significant impact on enterprises looking at deploying private 5G networks or even consuming a 5G network slice of their own.

The idea behind any Open RAN strategy, the O-RAN Alliance being the most-recognized advocate, is to prevent network vendors from locking in customers and ensure that competition controls the price of deployment and support. Both telcos and enterprises have a long history of believing their vendors try to lock them into deals, keeping competitors in general from gaining traction. In response, the industry has promoted open-model networking based on white-box switches and open-source software. O-RAN came about because while 5G specifications are generally more open, there was still a part of the Radio Access Network (RAN) that was potentially outside that open model. O-RAN defined specifications for an open version, and that was hailed initially by nearly everyone.

Are vendors undercutting Open RAN's viability?

Read nearly. Vendor lock-in is bad for users, and bad for up-and-coming vendors, but great for incumbents. Of the top three mobile infrastructure vendors (Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia), only Nokia is seen as being truly committed to Open RAN. Interestingly, they’ve been at the heart of many of the negative stories.

Within the last six months we’ve had stories that the O-RAN Alliance work might be threatened by the participation of Chinese firms that might be subject to US intellectual property restrictions, and Nokia was said to be reconsidering their contribution to the group. Then we had stories that Nokia wasn’t being really “open” in their implementation, then that some countries were losing faith in it. Other stories with this same questioning-to-negative tone have followed. Open RAN has gone from almost 100% positive coverage to stories that say there’s hardly any of it deployed. Operators tell me that they believe this is the work of unnamed vendors who want to protect their 5G opportunity, and the operators tend to shrug it off.  When has selling not involved subtle dissing of the opposition?

Open RAN doubt can scare CFOs

Enterprises may be bearing the brunt of this Open RAN skepticism. Most enterprises are struggling to get approval for new network investment, and so going to the CFO with a private 5G story is going to raise a lot of financial eyebrows at best. Since an open-model 5G is likely cheaper, is less vulnerable to lock-in, and follows general technology thinking that favors open solutions, enterprises often frame their projects around an Open RAN model—a model the CFO is now reading bad things about. A quarter of the enterprises who have been considering private 5G say that the negative publicity Open RAN has received has made it harder to get senior management buy-in.

There’s not a lot of fairness in this, to be kind. It’s hard to see how the technology in an open-model networking project generates protectable intellectual property, so what does it matter who is supporting the work? Yes, it’s true that many of the telcos have talked about Open RAN limitations, but these are primarily related to support for older 2/3G services, which the O-RAN Alliance doesn’t define support for. Enterprises don’t need to support those old “Gs”—and remember that over 90% of operators say they’re exploring Open RAN. NEC, which wants to get into the 5G business, is basing its strategy on Open RAN. Does this sound like failure?

It’s possible that all of this is a sad coincidence, that the China-membership flap is just one of the many political artifacts of our time, and that the media eventually turns on every concept once all the positive stories have been told. It’s also possible that the telcos are right, and a vendor is behind this. I leave it to you to guess who might want to do that, but the key point is that enterprises now face a bigger challenge deciding whether to believe these new criticisms. How many CFOs will play it safe? How many private 5G projects will die on the vine, and will Open RAN skepticism impact 5G deployment by network operators? You need 5G Core to really implement network slicing that would give enterprises a public-private-5G option, and in truth there’s less 5G Core out there than there is Open RAN.

How to use RFIs, RFPs for good info

If you’ve decided that private 5G is for you, is it possible to get past the hype and misinformation and make a good decision? For enterprises, Open RAN is no more risky than any open-source technology, providing the justification for private 5G is solid and that Open RAN is treated the way open-source is treated today.  Your open-source software likely comes from a player who bundles the “free” software with integration and support services, and that’s what enterprises want for Open RAN. They just need good information.

To dig out reality from hype in the Open RAN space, you’ll need to use the RFI/RFP process as follows.

  • Issue an RFI, and clearly describe your application for 5G, including just what devices you expect to support, where you’ll need to deploy, and what performance and capacity you need.
  • Submit your RFI to your network equipment vendor and to your IT/cloud software supplier. Also submit it to Open-RAN leaders like Mavenir and to any of the big three mobile network vendors— AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon—that will promise an open response.
  • Issue an RFP to those who offer the best response.

Your RFI and RFP will either educate and inform you on your best choice or show that private 5G isn’t the answer for you, but either way, you will be able to make an informed choice.

Enterprise servers used to run on proprietary operating systems, and today virtually all of them run open-source Linux. There was plenty of resistance to that shift, but it’s pretty clear how things turned out. For 5G, Open RAN and open-model network technology overall, are the future, too.  The chances are better that enterprises will have a happy and long relationship with Open RAN than with proprietary 5G. Just do your Open RAN homework like you would with any open technology, and you’ll be fine with it.

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