Open RAN movement is the latest front on larger geopolitical conflicts

With the benefit of hindsight, the 5G New Radio standard was collaboratively developed by organizations like 3GPP with a broad goal of creating a single standard rather than rehashing GSM vs. CMDA or LTE and WiMax. But as technology becomes an increasingly pulled lever in larger machinations around trade, security and hegemony, what’s the long-term outlook for global technology standardization.

Let’s consider this in the context of open RAN. The idea is to foster interoperability between hardware and software vendors allowing disaggregation; from there, operators get choice, innovation flourishes, prices go down, and it’s great. In addition to developing the attendant technology pieces, open RAN advocates have recently organized into the Open RAN Policy Coalition with the general goal of securing R&D funding from the U.S. government. And, depending on the coalition member you talk to, pushing for market-based policies that would allow for smaller vendors, many of them American, to more effectively compete with Huawei in other global markets.

Parallel Wireless is a major provider in this space and, in an interview with RCR Wireless News, CEO Steve Papa touched on the notion of openness as it relates to RAN and also how geopolitical machinations and history should inform lawmakers’ current postures toward fostering a U.S. telecom ecosystem.

He said the open RAN business model match the generational shifts in cellular. “The economics of a coverage technology and architecture don’t scale well as a capacity architecture. The entire business models of the incumbent vendors don’t work and don’t map to what the people deploying the equipment require given the economic realities.”

Papa continued: “O-RAN is exposing this to more innovators to participate, which is good. But more importantly, the U.S. government is waking up to its role in supporting the semiconductor market.” He noted the Made in China 2025 focus on developing semiconductor expertise and other moves he characterized as “a state actor tipping to playing field…Our commercial market in communications infrastructure equipment is being distorted by a state actor. We can let that happen or we can counter it in a similar way.”

Industry analyst Dean Bubley addressed the many parts that could align resulting in a technological bifurcation in this excellent piece. “I think that geopolitics may undermine the ‘single global standard’ for mobile, along with some conveniently-timed technical evolution paths. This is not a forecast, or even the most likely outcome – but I believe it is solidifying into a much more realistic scenario.

As to why, Bubley frames the issues as control vs. openness and delineates how control favors a single-vendor approach. Openness is evidenced in a major way by a “huge upswing of presence of IT/cloud players in cellular infrastructure…IBM/RedHat, Dell/VMware, Microsoft/Affirmed, HPE, Oracle–plus AWS and Google taking various roles from RAN to core, as well as Facebook with TIP and its new stake in Reliance Jio.”

Another focal point here is Rakuten Mobile, a Japanese operator that greenfield built a virtualized, cloud-native open LTE network. That was.a massive exercise in vendor coordination and collaboration and now Rakuten Mobile is looking to sell that entire network architecture to other operators (Dish).

Radisys CEO Arun Bhikshesvaran discussed the openness inflection point that we seem to be reaching. He described a Venn diagram with three circles representing technology availability, economic viability and ecosystem vulnerability with necessity sitting at the overlap. Operators, he said, want choice because it provides them with an economic advantage.

But, “The technology has not been truly available although we’ve talked about open standards for many, many years. Technology availability has not really been there to make this viable form an economic standpoint.” With disaggregation, “That freedom between software and hardware inherently gives you tremendous leverage in how to build these networks and massively scale them…You’re no longer tied to appliances that only last for a certain lifespan. Software can be more dynamic.”

The thing with that is major vendors like Ericsson and Huawei make their nut selling appliances. While Ericsson and Nokia support open RAN development through work with consortia like the O-RAN Alliance or Open RAN Policy Coalition, it’s a balancing act between a proven business model and something new.

As Bubley put it, “If the ‘old guard’ vendors and their institutional peers within 3GPP, GSMA, ETSI etc. want to avoid this bifurcation, they are going to have to make some difficult decisions, and soon. Otherwise the potential to be disrupted from adjacency will grow. They need to be genuinely open, and start loosening the vision of pure ‘end-to-end control’, and embracing imperfect, inelegant pragmatism about network design, operation and ownership.”

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