Mythbusting Open RAN – separating fact from fiction on open radio access networks

The mobile industry is in a constant state of transformation. While industry buzzwords have long been focused on the Gs (prepare yourself for a whole lot of talk about 6G moving ahead…), perhaps the greatest mobile industry evolution is occurring today within the infrastructure.

The telco industry is evolving

In a traditional mobile network ecosystem, the RAN (radio access network) is proprietary: A single vendor provides their package of radio hardware and software to enable the mobile network to function. The latest approach to mobile infrastructure however is all about Open RAN, an architecture that allows mobile networks to be built using new combinations of hardware and software, including those from a new emerging generation of agile tech-centric vendors.

With hardware and software vendors developing and offering solutions based on open protocols and interfaces, the mobile industry is on track to see benefits that include improved network performance and security, as well as reductions in the cost of construction and operations, ultimately leading to cost savings for retail customers.

With the emergence of Open RAN threatening the legacy telco model, myth and speculation about Open RAN standards and specifications, performance and the impact it will have on the future of the industry have also run rampant. Rakuten Mobile, which has built and deployed the world’s first and still the only cloud-native, fully-virtualized mobile network in line with Open RAN standards, is taking a run at busting some of those myths.

Myth #1: Open RAN isn’t ready for prime time

Myth #1: Open RAN isn’t ready for prime time

  • Open RAN won’t be commercially viable for another 3-5 years.
  • It doesn’t include the features existing mobile operators want.
  • Open RAN standards and specifications are still being developed.

If Open RAN weren’t going be ready for another 3-5 years, Rakuten Mobile simply would not exist. It most certainly wouldn’t be winning awards by objective third-party companies such as Opensignal for availability and network speed, beating the three incumbent Japanese operators. Nor would it have scored so well against all global mobile network operators in a recent report from umlaut. These accolades bode well for a barely one-year-old network.

The fact is, Open RAN is ready for prime time. And Rakuten Mobile’s commercial deployment, which covers nearly the entire population of Japan, is Exhibit A. The Open RAN specs and standards by which Rakuten Mobile’s many partners have developed their novel technologies are ready for any mobile operator around the world to use to build, deploy and maintain their mobile network.

The current Open RAN ecosystem standards and specifications are sufficiently mature for implementation-ready interfaces, evidenced by the continued proliferation of Open RAN-compliant solutions, equipment, and network components.

Myth #2: Open Radio access networks can’t sufficiently support different densities

Myth#2: Open RAN can’t sufficiently support different densities

  • Open RAN doesn’t support urban areas.
  • Open RAN doesn’t support suburban areas.
  • Open RAN doesn’t support rural areas.

The fact is, Open RAN is capable of supporting different geographies with different population densities. Rakuten Mobile has successfully deployed its high-performing mobile network in all kinds of population densities.

Rakuten Mobile launched its network in three cities in Japan: Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. These cities are among the most densely-populated cities in the world. Its open, virtualized architecture allowed the network to be built with base stations that require a minimal footprint while delivering high capacity and coverage. Considering greater Tokyo’s population of 25+ million people — arguably the world’s largest city — we’d say this network is sufficient proof to bust the myth about Open RAN not working in big cities.

At an accelerated pace, Rakuten Mobile has expanded its network to many other parts of the country. It is currently on track to cover 96% of country’s population within 2021, five years ahead of schedule, including numerous suburban and rural areas like Shimane and Shiga that are defined more by their mountains and rice fields than skyscrapers and neon signs. In each of these cases, Open RAN has proven to be the optimal architecture with high flexibility to accommodate different population densities. 

Myth #3: Open RAN isn't secure

Myth #3: Open RAN isn’t secure

  • Open RAN ecosystems expand the attack surface of a network.
  • Working with multiple vendors poses greater risk than using RAN from just one vendor.

Open RAN solutions increase security by enabling greater visibility and control points in the network, greater responsiveness, and greater isolation capability. By deploying Open RAN architecture, cloud-native solutions and a zero-trust security posture, Rakuten Mobile has removed the “black boxes” found in traditional telecom networks and introduced greater visibility and more control points into the network. This drives enhanced security and enables greater automation.

Open RAN provides the flexibility to easily swap out a vendor’s component that might be problematic for a more trusted source. Operating a trusted, secure, and resilient network starts with a trusted supply chain and continuous verification of the trust level of the system and its physical, virtual, hardware and software components. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools in Rakuten Mobile’s network also facilitates additional security analytics.  As Open RAN evolves it will incorporate new capabilities such as real-time and non-real-time RIC (RAN Intelligent Controller) that use AI models to protect against new and emerging network threats.

But what does this mean for mobile customers? Simply put, it means all-around security. Their data is secure. Their device is secure. Their privacy is secure.

Myth #4: Open radio access networks aren’t easy to integrate

Myth #4: Open RAN isn’t easy to integrate

  • Hardware and software solutions from multiple vendors isn’t plug-and-play.
  • Proprietary solutions are easier to integrate.
  • It is hard for small operators to work with solutions from multiple vendors.

While integration might seem like a challenge for Open RAN, it’s not unique to Open RAN. Whether you are building a legacy network or an Open RAN network, there are always integration challenges. The difference is that they are more visible to the operator with Open RAN, rather than being contained deep inside a vendor organization. This may also call for something of a cultural shift within operator organizations, to become more tech-savvy as the focus shifts toward software-based solutions. This is something that is already happening across multiple industries with telco still struggling to catch up.

Fortunately, there are tools available to help minimize the challenges of Open RAN integration, such as the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP). With RCP, Rakuten Mobile has done the hard work with the support of its global hardware and software partners to create a platform that makes it quicker and less expensive to deploy virtualized networks. By choosing from a range of hardware and software options to suit their needs, mobile operators will better control their own destiny, as well as their ability to pass on enriched services and cost savings to customers.

Simply put, integration challenges are not unique to Open RAN architectures and impose no more burdens or costs on mobile network operators than those incurred in connection with the deployment of legacy networks and technologies.

Myth #5: Open RAN is more expensive

Myth #5: Open RAN is more expensive

  • Traditional vendors reduce total cost by offering a sealed solution.
  • Hardware and software pricing isn’t transparent with Open RAN.
  • Network maintenance costs increase with Open RAN due to complexity.

The claims of Open RAN being as expensive — if not more expensive — than legacy networks tend to come from either the very few companies selling legacy network technology or the mobile operators that have invested considerably in that technology.

Rakuten Mobile is the world’s first mobile networks built on Open RAN. In deploying its network with a wider portfolio of radio units and software components and taking advantage of virtualization and automation, Rakuten Mobile’s capital expenditures are approximately 40% lower, and operational expenditures are 30% lower, than a traditional legacy deployment.

Here are the actual results:

CAPEX reduction of up to 40%. This reduction of expenses for building the network is realized primarily due to the network requiring less equipment at each base station, and running virtualized software on top of commercial off the shelf hardware IT servers instead of tightly-integrated purpose-built hardware and software. That’s less hardware and less expensive commodity hardware to purchase and install.

OPEX reduction of up to 30%. Having less equipment at each site means Rakuten Mobile saves on maintenance. Having a network that is fully virtualized and intelligent means the network can monitor and maintain itself (currently with automation and in the future with autonomy).

Open RAN also opens a market previously dominated by a handful of major companies to new, smaller players, which will promote innovation and choice in the industry. This will allow operators to select the exact equipment to suit their needs and budget, and the competition will lead to more innovation and lower prices in the long run.

Myth #6: Open radio access networks don’t offer the same performance as legacy architecture

Myth #6: Open RAN doesn’t offer the same performance as legacy architecture

  • Traditional networks are designed to work seamlessly.
  • Loosely-integrated Open RAN networks add inefficiencies to the network.

Network performance is a key factor for any operator, but choosing Open RAN architecture doesn’t mean sacrificing performance. In fact, many operators have said that Open RAN deployments have met or surpassed their KPIs, and that the use of Open RAN improves performance in metrics such as spectral efficiency and latency. One example of this is Rakuten Mobile’s network in Japan.

In just a year since the full-scale commercial launch, Rakuten Mobile has shown highly competitive network performance, winning Opensignal awards for upload speed and voice app experiences in Japan. These results are with around 1/5 of the spectrum of other carriers. In addition,  umlaut’s independent comparison of Rakuten Mobile to global mobile network operators proved that Rakuten’s Open RAN network is outperforming legacy mobile networks in the world’s largest cities, scoring 926 out of a possible 1,000 points in the review.

While the commercial deployment of Open RAN is new, the technologies and the know-how are not. The telecom industry has been discussing and testing these technologies for a long time. Software-centric networks and open disaggregated RAN is future-proof architecture. Rakuten Mobile has leaned into the future and proven that this model works on a commercial scale.

Open RAN myths busted

Change can be scary. When an industry decides to break down barriers of entry and allow startups to introduce innovative thinking and solutions, it can result in fears of loss for existing players.

It’s this fear that causes myths to emerge.  However, as long as Rakuten Mobile’s network continues to win awards and make waves across the world with the Rakuten Communications Platform, we’ll be here to bust the myths.

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