Not all open RAN is the same — Industry Voices: Pongratz

Stefan Pongratz

“We want to introduce the term True Open RAN.” That is what Mavenir said during a recent analyst update. With open RAN revenues accelerating at a much faster pace than initially expected, the timing is right to start separating all the various open RAN flavors so we can better assess the progress toward realizing the full open RAN vision. Because at the end of the day, not all open RAN is the same, and capturing the share of the overall RAN market is only part of the story. This high level metric without context will not suffice to communicate the complete picture. 

Dell'Oro chart 1

The long-term open RAN vision is built on three key pillars including open interfaces, virtualized technologies and vendor neutral multi-vendor deployments. In addition to leading the industry toward open and interoperable interfaces, the long-term roadmap maximizes the use of COTS hardware and minimizes the reliance on proprietary hardware (O-RAN Alliance). 

Taking into consideration that one of the primary objectives is to capture the overall movement toward open RAN and the fact that it will take some time to realize the broader vision, it is somewhat implied that there will be room for interpretation when it comes to capturing this movement and tracking the open RAN market. 

And within each of these pillars, there will be various degrees of compliance. Multi-vendor deployments are often associated with mixing and matching baseband and radio suppliers. But when Mavenir introduced the term “True Open RAN,” it meant true mixing and matching across the board – they want to work with anyone with any component. If someone gives them a radio they should be able to integrate it with their software. And vice versa, if another supplier provides the software “True Open RAN” would enable them to make it work with their Massive MIMO radios. 

Not surprisingly, there is room for interpretation with the other building blocks as well. Open RAN compatible radios are now proliferating across the supplier landscape. But it is not always clear after browsing the data sheets what this entails from an open RAN specifications, customization and coverage perspective. With five interfaces (A1, E2, O1, O2, Open FH), multiple functions (SMO, Non-Real time RIC, Near-Real-Time RIC), and a confluence of profiles, there is not an abundance of confidence that the open RAN maturity would be consistent across the board.

RELATED: Industry Voices — Pongratz: Virtualized and open RAN gain momentum

Though vRAN is typically not considered to be a required pillar now in the early open RAN adopter phase and the implementation of vRAN and open RAN more often than not remains mutually exclusive, vRAN remains an important element in the long-term vision. Similar to the interface and multi-vendor support, vRAN readiness and implementations typically vary with some suppliers suggesting they support full vRAN, while others hint there is no such thing as full vRAN, since custom silicon will continue to play a dominant role with advanced wide-band radios (some suppliers estimate around two thirds of the typical 64T64R vRAN processing will be addressed with ASICs).

Dell'Oro chart 2

In short, we should be encouraged by the developments so far.

After all, preliminary estimates suggest total open RAN revenues— including open RAN compatible macro and small cell radios plus baseband (vRAN or multi-vendor not required) — surged in the first quarter increasing around five-fold year-over-year. At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that not all open RAN is the same. If we truly want to understand the impact on the ecosystem and assess whether we are moving in the right direction when it comes to realizing the larger vision, we probably should start measuring the progress with “True Open RAN” as well.

Stefan Pongratz is a vice president at the Dell’Oro Group. He joined Dell’Oro in 2010 after spending 10 years with the Anritsu Company. Pongratz is responsible for the firm's Radio Access Network and Telecom Capex programs and has authored advanced research reports on the wireless market assessing the impact and the market opportunity with small cells, C-RAN, 5G, IoT and CBRS.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of the editorial board.