Monday, December 4, 2023

Is this the Open RAN tipping point: AT&T, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Nokia, Mavenir

The latest publications around Open RAN deliver a mixed bag of progress and skepticism. How to interpret these conflicting information?

A short retrospective of the most recent news:

On the surface, Open RAN seems to be benefiting from a strong momentum and delivering on its promise of disrupting traditional RAN with the introduction of new suppliers, together with the opening of traditional architecture to a more disaggregated and multi vendor model. The latest announcement from AT&T and Ericsson even would point out that the promise of reduced TCO for brownfield deployments is possible:
AT&T's yearly CAPEX guidance is supposed to reduce from a high of ~$24B to about 20B$ per year starting in 2024. If the 14B$ for 5 years spent on Ericsson RAN yield the announced 70% of traffic on Open RAN infrastructure, AT&T might have dramatically improved their RAN CAPEX with this deal.

What is driving these announcements?

For network operators, Open RAN has been about strategic supply chain diversification. The coalescence of the market into an oligopoly, and a duopoly after the exclusion of Chinese vendors to a large number of Western Networks has created an unfavorable negotiating position for the carriers. The business case of 5G relies heavily on declining costs or rather a change in the costs structure of deploying and operating networks. Open RAN is an element of it, together with edge computing and telco clouds.

For operators

The decision to move to Open RAN is mostly not any longer up for debate. While the large majority of brownfield networks will not completely transition to Open RAN they will introduce the technology, alongside the traditional architecture, to foster cloud native networks implementations. It is not a matter of if but a matter of when.
When varies for each market / operator. Operators do not roll out a new technology just because it makes sense even if the business case is favorable. A window of opportunity has to present itself to facilitate the introduction of the new technology. In the case of Open RAN, the windows can be:
  • Generational changes: 4G to 5G, NSA to SA, 5G to 6G
  • Network obsolescence: the RAN contracts are up for renewal, the infrastructure is aging or needs a refresh. 
  • New services: private networks, network slicing...
  • Internal strategy: transition to cloud native, personnel training, operating models refresh
  • Vendors weakness: Nothing better than an end of quarter / end of year big infrastructure bundle discount to secure and alleviate the risks of introducing new technologies

For traditional vendors

For traditional vendors, the innovator dilemma has been at play. Nokia has endorsed Open RAN early on, with little to show for it until recently, convincingly demonstrating multi vendor integration and live trials. Ericsson, as market leader has been slower to endorse Open RAN has so far adopted it selectively, for understandable reasons.

For emerging vendors

Emerging vendors have had mixed fortunes with Open RAN. The early market leader, Altiostar was absorbed by Rakuten which gave the market pause for ~3 years, while other vendors caught up. Mavenir, Samsung, Fujitsu and others offer credible products and services, with possible multi vendors permutations. 
Disruptors, emerging and traditional vendors are all battling in RAN intelligence and orchestration market segment, which promises to deliver additional Open RAN benefits (see link).

Open RAN still has many challenges to circumvent to become a solution that can be adopted in any network, but the latest momentum seem to show progress for the implementation of the technology at scale.
More details can be found through my workshops and advisory services.

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