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In the 5G era, networks must be flexible, scalable and agile. To support the evolving needs of digitalized economies, the industry is undergoing an overhaul, slowly transiting from legacy radio access networks (RAN) to open RAN as network operators aim to expedite cost-effective 5G network rollouts to expand networks and meet the surge in demand for connectivity to power future-ready networks.

Benefits of open RAN

Open RAN gives operators a greater degree of autonomy to manage their networks and the flexibility of choosing from different suppliers. This allows operators to mix and match RAN equipment to upgrade or expand networks more flexibly, as well as the ability to create networks that deliver optimized custom solutions to end customers with short time to market.

In an open vendor environment, operators are able to break away from vendor lock-in, as supplies can be sourced from several interoperable vendors. While this increases market competition, it introduces vendor competition to lower hardware and software costs, and hence lower total cost of ownership. Smaller players will also enter the market owing to lower barriers to entry. This contributes to a vendor ecosystem that is more diversified and vibrant.

RAN can be optimized with the introduction of intelligent RAN to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). An open and virtualized RAN enables the disaggregation of software functionality and underlying hardware. A cloud-native approach with open RAN also allows remote management, which lowers costs of upgrades and maintenance. With the ability to host cloud network solutions, software updates can take place on the cloud to facilitate quicker turnaround for timely upgrades to help operators keep abreast with evolving market demands.

Challenges of deploying open RAN

Even though open RAN promises benefits aligned with the rise of 5G, operators may not be able to enjoy immediate perks in the short term as they continue to support existing 2G, 3G and 4G networks on RAN networks, at least in many countries in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.

With open RAN still in its infancy, operators face the challenge of ensuring interoperability and manageability to reap optimized end-to-end performance. Before open RAN becomes widely adopted, more testing will have to be carried out to ensure that products from multiple vendors work together seamlessly. Operators are tasked to perform verification to ensure interoperability between vendors before integrating products, potentially offsetting lower software and hardware costs in the first place.

Even so, open RAN has made encouraging strides in the past year as the industry has been advancing open RAN standards and specifications, carried out predominantly by the O-RAN ALLIANCE. Recognizing the importance of benchmarking and testing to help operators accelerate towards open RAN, the O-RAN ALLIANCE launched a minimal viable plan (MVP) earlier this year, specifying essential open RAN functions such as fronthaul, open hardware and cloud. In June, Google became one of the newest members to join the O-RAN ALLIANCE to accelerate open RAN initiatives.

Open RAN partnerships to grow the ecosystem

Globally, more operators are modernizing their networks by deploying open RAN. Last month, Deutsche Telekom (DT) switched on O-RAN Town in Neubrandenburg to deliver open RAN based 4G and 5G services. In one of the latest, Telecom Eqypt will be working on a proof-of-concept trial for open RAN solutions together with partners like Cisco and Altiostar.

According to the Dell’Oro group, open RAN investments grew by about five-fold year-on-year, with Asia-Pacific (APAC) fueling unprecedented growth in open RAN. Last year, Japan’s Rakuten Mobile launched the first 5G open RAN network, with other operators such as NTT DOCOMO and KDDI now steering efforts towards open RAN deployments. With the shift intensifying, Rakuten Mobile recently announced strategic collaborations with NEC and Fujitsu to separately deliver open RN solutions to the global market, with both partnerships focused on jointly developing 4G and 5G open RAN.

Moreover, Malaysia-based Axiata announced the first and only open RAN commercial pilots in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. To propel its open RAN ambition to boost an open network ecosystem, Axiata is working with partners like Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Infosys.

To fully harness the benefits of open, intelligent and flexible networks, ecosystem stakeholders must work collaboratively to push forth a viable transition. Instead of waiting for open RAN solutions to mature, operators must take action now, rather than later, to participate in this evolution.

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