The promise and pitfalls of Open RAN (Reader Forum)


It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. But it should not mean intervention. Such is potentially the case with the proposed effort called Open RAN or O-RAN, which offers software solutions to telecommunication networks but shouldn’t be considered a panacea to relieve geopolitical tensions or reduce the high cost of investment in infrastructure. Rather it should be evaluated with a clear idea how it helps deploy 5G networks in real time.

To set the scene, the next generation of telecommunication network capabilities (5G) have rapidly evolved to improve connectivity, especially when combined with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), added to the increasingly low cost and “intelligence” of radio sensors connected to devices and within any network. 

Shorthand for this: the 4th Industrial Revolution has arrived.

At stake within this revolution is the same historic validation we’ve witnessed in the past; the nation’s economy that most effectively capitalizes on the foundation becomes dominant.

5G networks are not, in and of themselves, the 4th Industrial Revolution. But they are the keystone to the arch that spans the technologies and economies upon which it will be built. 

So where does the virtualization of the Radio Access Network, loosely called O-RAN, come in?

In practical terms, this follows both the shift towards the commoditization of proprietary hardware to software-optimized functionality as well as the market (network operators) demand for a broader, and theoretically, more competitive vendor base.   

In geopolitical and trade terms, it has the makings of a panacea.

The promise of O-RAN is that it will reduce vendor “lock in” so that one proprietary vendor cannot monopolize a network RAN system. It will promote so-called “white-box hardware” with easy scalability through software-based nodes with multiple service providers. And, most critically for assuaging geopolitical tensions, it will facilitate increased U.S. supplier participation in U.S. and global network markets. 

But these benefits of O-RAN may be outweighed by the detractions. Notably, within its cost, effectiveness and power consumption. The RAN is the most expensive component of any network. And the largest part of that expense is operation expenses (OPEX).  For every site it’s about 62-67% of that budget. On the other hand, exclusive of civil upgrades and baseband cost, capital expenditures (CAPEX) are about 12% of the cost per network site. Energy costs per site tally about half of OPEX. Thus, unless O-RAN can address non-capex site costs including energy costs to run the network, then the business case for O-RAN, at this point, is murky at best. 

As with any new system, the real-world requirements for O-RAN will mean testing for risk, validation of design, and field system level testing. Not to mention cyber security protocols that must be added to and tested. This rollout is on the order of years — a minimum of two to three. The 5G networks in 99% of cases will overlay an existing 3G or 4G network. Since these networks are generally composed of different and proprietary hardware, integration of the new with the old will need tailored configurations for each network operator. More time expended. 

During that time, China’s 5G network will be completed and Europe’s will shortly follow. 

To be clear, listing the pitfalls of O-RAN is not the same as denigrating it. In fact, recent actions by the Congress to fund R&D and deployment for O-RAN should be applauded and encouraged. 

Rather, the important and immediate issue is placing this in the context of what has been espoused by policy makers: “the race to 5G.”  

Thus, the central question becomes: will a policy to displace current technologies for the promise of O-RAN further slow the race?  Concerns over trade disputes should not obscure a clear-headed focus on the goal: the timely and transcendent adaptation of U.S economic might to the 4th industrial revolution.

There are a few questions that need answering in this focus. Will a policy focus on O-RAN accelerate or divert the timely deployment of 5G networks in the United States? If the move towards O-RAN will require extensive testing for risk mitigation, validation, integration, and security, should that rubric also be applied to current existing RAN technology offerings and standards in order to accelerate 5G deployment, regardless of vendor? The main argument for O-RAN is the lack of vendor diversity. With essentially a duopoly in the U.S RAN market today, why hasn’t the offer by Huawei to license its entire 5G technology stack to one American company been considered? What are the key cybersecurity and software supply-chain policies needed as Open Ran moves forward? 

Technologies within O-RAN will move forward in the United States, but these fundamental questions need to be addressed. And policy makers need to wisely choose which policies move us towards the real goal of setting the foundation for the 4th Industrial Revolution and which could be diversions.

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