This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Maria Lema, Co-Founder, Weaver Labs
With the UK quickly becoming one of the most optimal places to invest in telecoms innovation, the existing deployment model has not been effective in coordinating communication and integration within the telecoms supply chain. This lack of consensus in the industry led the government to develop a new set of Open RAN principles that supports the growing demand for investment in Open RAN, tackling key areas of supply chain diversification.
However, supply chain diversity depends on Open RAN succeeding, which was historically hard as the telecoms sector failed to work together to create an open network framework. Therefore, the latest government intervention will provide a top-down approach to generating more competition in the industry and in turn encourage greater innovation.
The government’s new principles will incentivise telecoms operators and network equipment vendors to further develop and deploy Open RAN which is a stepping stone into addressing openness and interoperability in the telecoms sector. This will further incentivise investors to channel funding into software solutions that advance the creation of RAN products and address integration and automation, enabling telecoms to move towards fully softwarised platforms. This strategy leverages the success of existing open-interface solutions and boosts the scope for interoperability, which is driving diversification. Its goals, as laid out in the government’s policy paper on Open RAN principles are to: “to enhance security, resilience, innovation and competition in critical national infrastructure and beyond”.
The timely manner of these principles will not only encourage competition in critical national infrastructure and beyond, but in doing so will support innovation through the diversification of vendors.
But, what are these four Open RAN principles? They are:
- Open disaggregation, allowing elements of the RAN to be sourced from different suppliers and implemented in new ways.
- Standards-based compliance, allowing all suppliers to test solutions against standards in an open, neutral environment.
- Demonstrated interoperability, ensuring disaggregated elements work together as a fully functional system — at a minimum matching the performance and security of current solutions.
- Implementation neutrality, allowing suppliers to innovate and differentiate on the features and performance of their products.
Here’s why industry leaders and like-minded public bodies need to follow the new protocols:
- Inconsistent interpretation of Open RAN
One of the issues that the telecom sector is facing is the lack of consistent interpretation of what true Open RAN is.
BT recently weighed in the debate by announcing its plan of an Open RAN trial with Nokia with the launch of a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC). Although some called it a pseudo-RAN, Nokia confirmed it had been developed following the Open RAN Alliance specifications adding that “the O-RAN Alliance specifications offers the most universally accepted definition of open RAN”.
While the debate around finding a consistent definition of Open RAN continues, attempts to create open base station standards have proved to be unsuccessful in delivering the expected benefits.
Agreeing common standards will allow a wide range of providers to develop and test technology in an open environment.
- Prioritise security and resilience
It is a known fact that the exploitation of networks increases when there is a lack of vendor diversity.
According to LightReading, you would need several different suppliers in each part of the of the Open RAN supply chain – from chips all the way through to software – in order to have genuine diversity: “with too few suppliers in any field, operators would risk the same dependency they have on Nordic suppliers now. The weaker the supplier, the more dangerous it could be.”
Networks are more open to bad actors and more vulnerable to security risks but by increasing the number of vendors and reducing the number of proprietary interfaces, security risks can be better controlled. Facilitating open interfaces through this principle will not only encourage investment into network operators but in doing so will accelerate competition and in turn boost network resilience.
- Transparency of market information
The current closed nature of the RAN market makes it difficult for those deploying networks to make good choices. In part, this is due to a lack of investment in the telecoms industry, but improvements could be made if new vendors were to establish and compare their products in terms of both performance and associated pricing.
To establish a proper marketplace for RAN equipment, transparency needs to be substantially improved, and the first step to this is incentivising investment. The 5G Diversification Taskforce is a clear example of how the government is planning to support R&D, testing and piloting of Open RAN based components and solutions. Among its recommendations for increasing the adoption of interoperable solutions by UK operators, there is also the introduction of a “Permission to Experiment” (regulatory sandbox) arrangement to help with the deployment of equipment from new vendors and Open RAN solutions.
- Make interchangeability a reality
Since full interchangeability is still an aspirational goal, efforts should be made on favouring interoperability between suppliers. The SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC), the joint activity between Digital Catapult and Ofcom, was created with the aim to provide a platform for existing and emerging suppliers to test interoperability and integration of open and software centric networking solutions, starting with Open RAN.
- Support competition
Finally, it is critical that industry leaders support healthy competition amongst telecom tech and service providers by creating the right market conditions. The government’s 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy, cites price war and low profit margins as key factors that detract new suppliers from entering or expanding into new areas.
The UK government’s £250 million 5G Diversification Strategy is clear proof of its commitment to Open RAN technology. However, it also shows its narrow approach to the issue, an issue that calls instead for a broader look at the whole telecoms sector.
Whilst these new principles do offer hope for diversity in the supply chain, Open RAN principles still need to look further as they mostly benefit mobile network operators and fall short in supporting telecoms infrastructure in general. With open radio technologies expected to account for as much as 15% of the RAN market by 2026, the opportunity is certainly there, and the market needs to be prepared for this.
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