A new open radio architecture could bring big benefits to the global cellular industry and its customers. That was the view of an expert panel, which discussed the deployment and impact of open RAN technology, at Rakuten Optimism 2022, Rakuten’s largest annual business conference. By enabling radio network hardware and software to be sourced from multiple different vendors, open RAN promises to give mobile operators much greater flexibility and lower costs.
“We have an ecosystem today that’s quite consolidated, particularly in the United States, and so it would be welcome to have a more diverse supplier base,” William Kennard, Chairman of AT&T and a former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), noted. A shift to open RAN would create “an environment for more innovation, more competition, more investment dollars coming into the sector and from a public policy standpoint, this can have the effect of driving down the cost of infrastructure,” he added, while cautioning that the new technology will require a greater focus on collaboration and integration.
Greater visibility, more transparency
At the same time, the combination of a more diverse supplier base and an open architecture could help alleviate the security concerns some policymakers have about being reliant on specific vendors. “Because, it’s not a black box, it’s a white box, you can bring in more secure elements. You have more visibility. You have more control,” stressed Azita Arvani, North America CEO, Rakuten Symphony. “And that control and that visibility is with the operator.”
Ajit Pai, Partner at Searchlight Capital Partners, a member of the board of Rakuten Symphony and another former Chairman of the FCC, agreed that open RAN could yield multiple benefits. By thinking more broadly about potential radio solutions, mobile operators can “reduce the cost of building these more agile networks, better leverage some of the spectrum assets that are coming to the market and settle some of the security issues by putting the keys to security in the hands of the operator, as opposed to outsourcing it to the vendor,” he explained. 5G technology is designed to be versatile enough to meet the needs of everyone from individual consumers to small businesses to major enterprises. “To do that, you have to have scalable infrastructure,” Pai noted.
When open meets automated
The rollout of open RAN is set to happen in tandem with the deployment of increasingly automated network systems. Kennard described the marriage of open RAN with machine learning and artificial intelligence as “a super powerful evolution.” He added that AT&T is “doing some really interesting things around 5G and what an open RAN network can do to incorporate machine learning and innovations around gaming and autonomous vehicles and video delivery systems.”
“In a decade or so, Ford and other automakers are essentially going to be running IoT (Internet of Things) networks. All these connected cars are going to have to be monitored in real-time to make sure that all of the transportation networks are optimized for safety and efficiency.”Ajit Pai, Partner, Searchlight Capital Partners
Although autonomous networks may be technically complicated, the value they can deliver for consumers and enterprises is massive, Pai added. Indeed, a step change in the versatility and efficiency of cellular networks could bring benefits to many different sectors of the economy from agriculture and manufacturing to healthcare and entertainment. “In a decade or so, Ford and other automakers are essentially going to be running IoT (Internet of Things) networks,” suggested Pai. “All these connected cars are going to have to be monitored in real-time to make sure that all of the transportation networks are optimized for safety and efficiency.”
“We have an ecosystem today that’s quite consolidated, particularly in the United States, and so it would be welcome to have a more diverse supplier base,”William Kennard, Chairman of AT&T and former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
Of course, both open RAN and autonomous network technologies are still in their formative stages and deployment by incumbent operators with legacy base stations is likely to be gradual. Enterprises’ private networks are likely to be early adopters of open RAN, according to Kennard, who suggested the technology could soon be used for critical applications in manufacturing and healthcare and “that will drive further deployment throughout the industry.”
Building a diverse global ecosystem
Kennard also flagged that major European operators are moving quite aggressively to adopt open RAN technologies. “That’s a good thing because, ultimately, you want… to have a diverse global infrastructure ecosystem. And that seems to be developing at least at this stage.” Noting that open RAN is reaching a pivotal point in its development, Kennard added: “Obviously Rakuten is a really important player in helping the industry make that pivot.”
“Because [open RAN] is not a black box, it’s a white box, you can bring in more secure elements. You have more visibility. You have more control”Azita Arvani, North America CEO, Rakuten Symphony
Looking forward, open RAN could have a particularly big impact in developing countries, where wireless networks are often the only option for people looking to get connected. By bringing down the cost of infrastructure, open RAN technologies could make it cost-effective to deploy 5G in many more places. “If you were able to scale an agile 5G or future proof network on wireless over the open RAN-based platform with cloud incorporated from the get-go…there’s no telling how quickly the rest of the world could finally get connected with mobile devices and services that we can only dream of,” said Pai. “So, I’m really excited about the globalization that’s going to come as a result of some of the innovation that Rakuten is leading.”