Almost two-thirds of cell sites set to deploy open RAN by 2026

With diversity in communications technology supply set to accelerate, open RAN will come to the fore and research suggests that enterprise small cells will be a key factor in its deployment

With acceleration increasing in the removal of essential network communications technology from so-called high-risk suppliers based in China, open radio access network (open RAN) technology is suddenly gaining momentum. It is likely to account for $32.3bn worth of all radio access network spending – 58% of the total – and be deployed at 65% of all sites by 2026, according to a study by RAN Research.

Moreover, said the wireless analytics arm of Rethink Technology Research in its Open RAN adoption patterns and forecast 2020-2026 report, this growth will likely occur despite overhype and uncertainty over which open RAN standards will prevail. It added that open RAN deployments would occur rapidly across all sectors, but would accelerate fastest in small cell environments, especially greenfield roll-outs, rather than in macro and micro RANs.

Open RAN’s proponents believe the technology has the potential to enable operators to broaden their range of network infrastructure partners and facilitate a better and more cost-effective 5G network service for customers. They say that by disaggregating hardware and software components and leveraging open interfaces, open RAN technology has the potential to enrich the mobile ecosystem with new solutions and business models and become the basis of an expanded multi-supplier ecosystem, one that is not dominated, as it the case at present, by a select number of suppliers.

As it set up a task force to drive work to diversify the UK’s telecoms supply chain and reduce reliance on so-called high-risk suppliers, the UK government said the current situation of mobile companies being limited to using just three major suppliers – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – in their networks represented a “market failure” that restricted choice and posed a risk for the security and resilience of the UK’s future digital networks.

RAN Research’s forecasts are based on analysis of feedback from 107 service providers, including 78 mobile network operators (MNOs) and 29 of those alternative cellular network deployers. This was said to have revealed key drivers, which would, if fully proven, accelerate their deployment of open RAN by at least one year, led by the need for simplicity of deployment, followed by access to innovation and multi-supplier interoperability. Reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO) was only in fourth place.

The study also highlighted the key role alternative and enterprise deployers would play in driving open RAN in many markets, including specialised divisions within MNOs and telcos. The study predicted that in the three-year period to 2023, only 17% of established MNOs were likely to have deployed an open RAN for any purpose, while 39% of alternative and greenfield deployers would adopt it fully in this early phase. The study said enterprise small cell networks would be a particularly strong driver and proving ground for open RAN.

Given such uncertainties, and also those associated with an ongoing debate over standards and technologies, the report set out best and worst-case forecasts for open RAN deployment in the period to 2026, analysing the factors that would govern which of those two trajectories the market would tend towards. Even under the worst-case scenario, the study calculated that open RAN would be deployed at 24 million cell sites by 2026, and in the best case 44 million. The middle, most likely course would put the total at 35 million.

Nokia was the first major supplier to join the O-RAN Alliance and it already co-chairs the workgroups that are defining the Open Fronthaul Interface and the Near Real-Time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which will help automate and optimise the network. In May 2020, it also joined the Open RAN Policy Coalition.

Yet the report made reference to growing opposition to the idea that the standard called O-RAN, heavily backed by Nokia, would be widely adopted as alternatives emerge, such as the SD-RAN project launched in August 2020 by the Open Networking Foundation (ONF).

The report noted that such divergence of effort could lead some operators to align their open RAN strategies more closely with independent groups such as the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the Small Cell Forum (SCF), which are heavily focused on practical deployment and integration roadmaps.

Yet whatever form open RAN takes, the report stressed that in all cases it would be deployed progressively rather than as a big-bang process.

“Most operators will introduce open interfaces initially to secondary or small cell networks, or to their fronthaul links only,” noted Caroline Gabriel, the report’s lead analyst and Rethink’s research director. “Alternatively, they will specify open RAN support in RFPs [request for proposal] but choose a single vendor in the first instance at least.”

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