Operators ponder Open RAN potential in private networks
As open radio access network (RAN) technology develops, mobile network operators are exploring whether it can be applied to 5G private networks to serve enterprise use cases as well as public networks.
According to Heavy Reading’s 2023 Open RAN Operator Survey, MNOs see potential for the open wireless technology in private networks, but also appear to be cautious and not quite ready to whole-heartedly back it in enterprise settings. The analyst firm asked operators if they expected to use open RAN in 5G enterprise networks in the next two years. While 31% said open RAN would be “a critical part of our private 5G offer”, 40% said the technology will “play an important role.”
In a blog about the survey results, Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst at Heavy Reading, said the answers reflect a “nuanced” view among operators that “keeps the door open to using the technology in the future” with a “pragmatic outlook.”
Open RAN has several things going for it when it comes to private networks, according to Brown. For one, it can be easily adapted to meet various use cases because it is naturally modular and programmable. The technology can also help to expand the supply chain to companies with sector expertise. Furthermore, work by the O-RAN Alliance on service management and orchestration (SMO) and RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) offer capabilities that “can enable low-touch, automated operation” needed in demanding enterprise environments.
Analysys Mason has also studied the potential for open RAN in private networks and concluded that the rise of enterprise cellular networks offers suppliers the “first opportunity for open RAN to achieve commercial scale.”
Given that the challenges still to be worked out for broad deployment in 5G macro networks, the initial focus for early Open RAN systems will be where there is “pent-up demand,” such as rural deployments and private cellular networks, with that latter having more significant commercial potential, according to Caroline Gabriel, Principal Analyst at Analysys Mason.
Gabriel explained that Open RAN could make private networks easier to deploy and manage because its open reference designs are similar to those of enterprise WiFi. Also, expanding the supplier ecosystem can help to serve broad and diverse enterprise use cases and deployment scenarios that are possible in private networks, she added.
Public networks still priority
For now, though, open RAN activities of the big operators are focused on public networks, rather than private. And the latest news shows there is still work to be done.
Ahead of Mobile World Congress, Deutsche Telekom provided an update on its O-RAN Town project in Neubrandenburg that it launched in June 2021. The results so far are positive, but not entirely so. The operator said the results and experience gained during the O-RAN Town trial “reaffirm our commitment” to make open RAN “the technology of choice for future networks”, but it admitted that open RAN technology is not yet mature enough for widescale deployment.
Other recent news includes an agreement between Orange and Vodafone to cooperate on open RAN for network sharing in rural parts of Europe where they both have networks. The first market will be Romania where commercial sites will be deployed in 2023. The operators intend to create an “open RAN sharing blueprint” that can be extended to other markets.
As open RAN continues to evolve, private networks could offer opportunities for early implementations of the new technology and to support an array of enterprise use cases.