Open RAN is one of the highest profile topics in mobile networking technology, driven by impressive operator and vendor messaging. In some instances, this messaging focuses on potential opex benefits, in others on capex efficiencies. Which of the two is greater (and the magnitude) is up for debate, and might only be revealed as the technology matures and scales.
What isn’t up for debate, however is the notion technology innovation and network spending aside, open RAN is of interest to players beyond operators and vendors. National governments and regulators, in particular have their own reasons for taking an interest in the technology.
The politics of open RAN
Potential open RAN technical and business model innovations tend to dominate discussions of the technology. It is worth acknowledging policy agendas are also involved in driving the technology’s momentum in various ways.
Consider the existence of industry bodies specifically aimed at promoting policies which will advance open and interoperable RAN systems, such as the Open RAN Policy Coalition. Consider government-funded open RAN development projects, including the UK’s Future RAN Competition which pledged up to £30 million to fund projects that could expedite adoption of open RAN technologies. Consider the views of operators themselves. When asked if national political agendas and concerns are driving the momentum of open RAN deployments and technology development as part of a GSMA Intelligence survey, 54 per cent agreed.
The explanation for any connection between open RAN and national policy goals is often over-simplified, reduced to one or two goals. In reality, a number of different agendas might be at play: a belief the core open RAN promises will benefit mobile operators and the rollout of new wireless technologies; a push for enhanced supply chain diversity; and initiatives which support local manufacture of mobile infrastructure and a belief open RAN can support them.
At the same time, some operators have been clear in stating that they see national support as important to their open RAN goals.
An MoU signed by Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone Group earlier this year, for example, noted the operators would work together with groups like the O-RAN Alliance and TIP to “ensure open RAN quickly reaches competitive parity with traditional RAN”.
European policy makers, however were also cited as important ecosystem partners. In fact, the MoU announcement ended by noting “the European Commission and the national governments have an important role to play to foster and develop the open RAN ecosystem by funding early deployments, research and development, open test lab facilities and incentivising supply chain diversity by lowering barriers to entry for small suppliers and start-ups who can avail of these labs to validate open and interoperable solutions”.
From an investor perspective, the concept of political risk captures an understanding that political decisions could impact profits or expected returns. From an open RAN perspective, support from policymakers could be helpful in funding, or otherwise supporting, ecosystem development. At the same time, it is not without its own risks:
Changing priorities. Policymakers have been known to change their positions and world views over time. Open RAN, in turn is still a nascent technology with technical and business issues to sort out. If political support for open RAN were to diminish (or evolve as the market takes shape), operators could find themselves having gone down a path that is suddenly more difficult to manage. This would particularly be the case where operators were counting on non-commercial support as part of their open RAN strategies.
Option limitations. In extreme cases, open RAN backing could take the form of mandating its deployment, which would obviously limit an operator’s network options, potentially forcing them to launch a technology not suited to their needs. Again, the fact open RAN is still maturing will play into any evaluation of those needs.
Priority clash. As noted earlier, officials might drive the promotion of open RAN for any number of reasons. Their interests, however won’t always align with operator interests. Prescriptive policies in support of open RAN, then could potentially constrain network choices and/or add to costs even if they stop short of mandating the technology.
Against this backdrop, we need to be particularly sensitive to any moves towards mandated open RAN deployment, in particular. Given existing momentum, technology-neutrality should not hurt the progress of open RAN, but will preserve operator choice in line with their priorities and understanding of the market.
– Peter Jarich – head, GSMA Intelligence
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.