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'Slow Uptake'

Some Experts Say ORAN Remains More Hype Than Reality

The first open radio access network projects are starting across the world, though when deployments will happen at scale remains an open question, experts said Wednesday during a Fierce Wireless virtual summit. Dish Network launched a 5G ORAN-based network in the U.S. and the administration began to develop rules for ORAN grants (see 2209060052), but questions have been raised about open networks security and several ORAN players downsized operations (see 2208180052).

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We really believe that there is a significant problem with the adoption of ORAN,” said Paul Miller, chief technology officer at software company Wind River. Industry agrees that around the time 6G starts, networks will be “fully virtualized” and open, he said. “Yet if we look at where we are today, the adoption of ORAN is at a critically low point,” he said. “We’re seeing hesitance and tentative investments from operators as they kind of experiment with the technology versus truly commit to it,” he said.

Dell’Oro projects that about 15% of the total RAN will be open by 2026, but “that’s really inadequate to get to the growth that we want to have a really successful adoption of the technology,” Miller said: “We are well beyond the hype curve now. … Something else is going on that’s causing the slow uptake” of ORAN. “We need to look together as an industry as to how we solve this problem and how we increase the adoption rate,” he said. “There’s a lack of known good solutions in the market today and that forces the operators to innovate and build it themselves and that’s not really scalable,” he said.

From Meta Connectivity’s perspective, deployment in the U.S. “could be faster for sure,” said Renuka Bhalerao, lead-RAN ecosystems and technologies. One big question is how operators can manage the “complexity that open RAN brings in a feasible and manageable way,” she said: “The U.S., starting with Dish, is paying attention” to that question.

The biggest advantage of ORAN is flexibility and the ability of carriers to bring in multiple vendors, Bhalerao said. ORAN “inherently is a multivendor system,” she said. ORAN will also “drive innovation,” she said. Industry is already talking about 6G and at Meta “we are even considering what we call the metaverse, which will be even more of an immersive experience and all of this is going to need the enhanced features that are planned,” she said. Providers also want to drive down their overall costs, Bhalerao said. “That’s an end goal, not necessarily what you start with, and that has to happen when you bring all the pieces together,” she said.

ORAN will bring more automation, said Paul Challoner, Ericsson North America vice president-network product solutions. “Networks have never been more complicated” and “being able to simplify that operation is really important,” he said. ORAN is a “real great framework to be able to have innovators come in and add the power of machine learning,” he said.

Massive rollouts” of ORAN are likely next year, predicted Aitor Garcia, Vodafone RAN product strategy and planning manager. “Open RAN is happening -- it’s not the question of whether it will happen,” he said. “The only question is when it will happen at scale,” he said. Vodafone projects that by 2030, 30% of its European network will be based on ORAN, he said. “In the past, we were saying that maybe open RAN would happen, but now we are saying that it will happen,” he said.

Security and other concerns remain, Garcia said. “We need new silicon architectures, we need open designs … and we need full end-to-end orchestration and automation,” he said: “In the end, this will happen. It’s about collaboration.” Greenfield networks aren’t really happening anywhere yet, Vodafone believes, he said. “Brownfield is a big opportunity, but it may happen later because of contracts and the organizational side of things,” he said.

ORAN “has been really moving very fast, as a new technology and as a new standard,” said Patrick Lopez, NEC global vice president-product management-5G. From its inception, it took a year for the first trial and another year for the first pilot deployment, he said. “Every year since there have been more and more deployments and more and more advancements in a lot of different capabilities,” he said.

John Strand of Strand Consult questioned some of the more positive statements about ORAN in the chat box during the virtual event. If ORAN “gets the growth its proponents predict” it will account for less than 1% of 5G mobile sites in 2025 and not more than 3% in 2030, he said: “It looks like OpenRAN is too little, too late to make a difference in a world in which operators deploy 10,000 classic 5G sites every month.”