Open RAN Creeps Ahead

January 20, 2021, was a momentous day. It also happened to be the day that Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, and Vodafone chose to publicly issued a Memorandum of Understanding describing their desire to work in harmony toward the adoption of Open RAN technologies in their networks.

It makes for some interesting reading. (Original here.) For example, and I quote:

  • The signatories individually commit that OPEN RAN will be the technology of choice for RAN.
  • The signatories commit to an early rollout of OPEN RAN technologies in individually relevant quantities to support the development of a healthy ecosystem.
  • The signatories will collaborate to support OPEN RAN reaching competitive parity with traditional RAN solutions as soon as possible.

You wouldn’t guess from reading this that the ‘signatories’ are competitors. They are. But apparently their interest in “OPEN RAN” is not about competitive advantage.

What the MOU says to me is that these operators want something called “OPEN RAN”, but are worried that whatever they mean by it is not gaining critical mass fast enough. And while the definition of “OPEN RAN” buried in Annex II is an interesting exercise in waffling and hedging, it’s a fair point.

Still, if they’re that interested in a particular technology, it’s hard to see how a public expression of solidarity will make any difference.

There is a clue further down:

The signatories agree to provide, within 6 months of the MoU coming into force, a joint “European Ecosystem Document” outlining proposals on how to set up a healthy European OPEN RAN ecosystem and to act as the basis for funding with national and European levels.

Ah, “funding with national and European levels”.

The press release leaves no doubt:

The four operators believe that the European Commission and the national governments have an important role to play to foster and develop the Open RAN ecosystem by funding early deployments, research and development . . . 

This is very reminiscent of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, which seems to exist primarily to lobby the US government for assistance.

The notion of business lobbying for government largess hardly requires explanation. But the operators are beginning to realize there’s a problem.

The perennial problem with Radio Access Networks is the radio, of the macro cell and massive MIMO varieties at least. Radio is hard. The RF hardware is difficult enough, but look past it to the massive task of signal processing and conditioning. A working system designed around components like low-PHY, digital up/down conversion, crest factor reduction, digital predistortion, the ORAN fronthaul interface, synchronization, etc., is a very expensive proposition.

Much of this could be and should be commodified, i.e. developed, integrated, tested, certified, and sold as a component to OEMs.

But it hasn’t happened that way. Every new entrant to the radio space (at least macro and massive MIMO) has had to develop everything more or less from scratch. It reminds you of the very early days of computing, when every computer manufacturer wrote their own operating system, compilers, editors, file systems, database managers, etc., that all did pretty much the same things.

The disaggregation of open RAN has not come to radios. Yet.

The sheer investment needed to develop that first radio is a major barrier to the “thriving ecosystem” that open RAN is supposed to bring us. For now the ecosystem will probably grow very slowly, and each prospective radio OEM must work out how to cover the high cost of entry.

I suppose it’s natural for businesses to turn to government, but in this case a public policy solution doesn’t actually solve the real problem. It merely shifts the costs. But maybe that’s the solution we’re going to get.

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