Open RAN and private networks: a match made in heaven?

Open RAN and private networks are two of the most consistently hyped wireless network technologies, but so far neither has reached mass adoption. Now open RAN vendors are starting to see potential in enterprise networks, and companies that deploy private wireless are evaluating open RAN.

Slow starts

Radio access networks with open interfaces have been a goal for mobile operators for years now, and some of them are already using open RAN in greenfield networks. But the bulk of carrier spending is still for upgrades to legacy networks, and here open RAN integration is a hurdle that will take time to scale. Vendors are investing heavily in software and hardware that complies with the evolving open RAN specifications, but most of their customer engagements so far are either trials or modest deals with regional operators.  

Meanwhile, private networks are a major focus for traditional network equipment vendors Nokia and Ericsson, but some of the smaller players trying to specialize in private wireless have struggled. Many of these vendors are targeting enterprise and/or municipal networks, using the shared CBRS spectrum and trying to offer solutions at prices that will be competitive with Wi-Fi.

Better together?

Open RAN can help reduce the cost of private networks, according to Andrew Jun, CTO at Advanced RF Technologies (ADRF). He calls private networks and open RAN “a great marriage” because enterprises will be able to mix and match network elements and vendors will need to compete on price throughout the network. Furthermore, open RAN software can be virtualized and run in a cloud.

“Through virtualization and cloudification, no dedicated hardware would be required, but rather cloud computing power can be shared and utilized just as much as needed,” said Jun. “Different sizes of private networks can be supported on demand with reasonable costs.”

Currently, an enterprise cannot purchase disparate open RAN elements with assurance that they will interoperate. But Jun sees a growing number of system integrators specializing in open RAN, and offering these networks as a service. He said these providers can run open RAN Centralized Units and Radio Intelligent Controllers in a cloud, while the Distributed Units and the Radio Units operate on-premise.

Caroline Gabriel, research director at Analysys Mason, included commentary about private wireless and open RAN in a recent blog post. She describes open RAN as “open reference designs that are akin to those used in enterprise Wi-Fi.”

“Open RAN, regardless of its fortunes in non-greenfield public 5G networks, may prove to be the catalyst for a parallel ecosystem to emerge to support private cellular platforms and operators, which may bear a stronger resemblance to the Wi-Fi industry than to the conventional 5G RAN ecosystem,” Gabriel wrote.

Gabriel predicts first-generation open RAN solutions will be capable of supporting most private wireless use cases, and therefore may find a foothold in enterprise networks. Her firm forecasts open RAN will account for 71% of all small cells deployed in the private enterprise sector in 2026. 

Private network opportunities may reduce the risk that open RAN vendors will go out of business while waiting for public carriers to deploy their solutions, wrote Gabriel. Some vendors could end up specializing in private wireless.

“There is no particular reason why the private enterprise network market and the public macro network market should share the same architecture and ecosystems, given their contrasting requirements and economics,” Gabriel observed.

Open RAN vendors, including Mavenir and JMA Wireless, are already targeting the private networks market, and private networks startups are eyeing open RAN. Celona, a company founded to make cellular as easy for the enterprise as Wi-Fi, recently implemented open RAN specifications.

Mobile network operators also see private networks as a good fit for open RAN. BT and Orange have both endorsed combining these two technologies while waiting for open interfaces to mature.