Orange takes slow but steady approach to open RAN

  • Orange is confident that open RAN will happen, but it is taking a gradual approach

  • The transition to open RAN is a complex journey for a brownfield operator

  • Orange puts focus on non-real time RIC for now

France-based Orange Group provided an update on its open radio access network (RAN) strategy during an Open RAN Summit last week and outlined some of the key challenges and opportunities that lie ahead with this new way of building mobile networks.

Atoosa Hatefi, director of innovation in radio and environment at Orange, made one thing very clear: “We’re confident that open RAN can happen. So the question is not if, but when,” she said.

Slowly does it

To be sure, there are a “few challenges that need to be overcome to allow the widescale deployment of open RAN” – including the maturity of the technology compared to traditional RAN, interoperability and integration, the need for a “change in mindset” at operators and the requirement to upskill or reskill employees, she said during TelecomTV's summit.

However, Orange doesn’t see “any showstoppers” that would prevent open RAN from being widely adopted in the near future, she said. 

She conceded that the actual deployment of open RAN at Orange will be very gradual because of the complexity of introducing the technology into a brownfield network environment.

As a consequence, Orange sees the migration from traditional RAN to open RAN “as a journey,” she said, noting that the group is in a learning phase right now. However, she pointed out that it is also making good progress owing to the different initiatives it has implemented.

These include open RAN tests on Pikeo, Orange’s cloud-based and fully automated standalone 5G experimental network, and a rural pilot in Romania in collaboration with Vodafone, with support from Dell, Samsung and Wind River.

In terms of introduction, we are first targeting Europe on a case-by-case basis,” Hatefi said, noting that a rural environment “is the first use case that we are considering,” with urban to come next when the technology is more mature.

“At the same time, we’re also studying and evaluating some other opportunities for deployment, particularly in the context of private networks. And this could also be beneficial in order to be able to have a kind of unified cloud infrastructure for different types of workloads, for enterprise use cases,” she added.

Gradual move toward a multi-vendor approach

While open RAN comes with the promise of greater vendor diversity and deployment flexibility, Hatefi warned that it is important to remember that this is a new model, “particularly for brownfield operators who are used to single RAN deployments.”

Here, she also counsels a step-by-step approach, suggesting that, “in the initial phase, pre-integrated solutions bundled with well-established vendors could actually speed up the readiness of deployable solutions.”

Looking ahead, she added, Orange is “working actively” toward a type of coordinated testing and a global certification framework to manage testing and interworking between vendors in a more efficient way. 

Meanwhile, Hatefi touched on the role of artificial intelligence, noting that the aim is for open RAN to be AI-native. In addition, she indicated that Orange has a number of initiatives that are exploring the application of the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), noting that the RIC framework “comes with several benefits,” such as a standardized framework for multi-vendor operation and interworking.

“Our first main objective is to actually ensure the migration of our C-SON towards the non-real time RIC, not only for open RAN, cloud RAN, but also with the traditional RAN,” she said. 

She added that the role of xApps and the near-real time RIC “is not that clear today for us compared to the non-real time RIC,” although she made it clear that Orange continues to evaluate both forms of the RIC.

Hatefi ended her interview with what she described as a “more generic question” for the ecosystem over longer term: whether or not two lines of products will be maintained over time, “or if eventually it will converge to a single line of product, which will be based on open RAN culture.”