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Telcos face Open RAN adoption challenges, cite cost and performance concerns

Even as telecom operators in the country have been testing the open radio access network (RAN) technology for some years now, they have flagged factors like higher cost, issues in performance, no clarity over service support, among key reasons that are restricting the commercial deployment of technology.

This assumes significance in the sense that open RAN technology which was expected to reduce the cost for network deployment by about 30% for telcos, instead has shown an over two times increase in the cost compared to current traditional RAN solutions, executives said. RAN constitutes a major portion of the capital expenditure (CapEx) of telecom operators.

Open RAN is a new way of connecting mobile devices to the core network. Instead of using equipment from just one company like in the case of traditional radio access networks, open technology lets service providers mix and match pieces from different companies, thereby reducing dependence on a few vendors.

Globally, US telecom operator AT&T is expected to spend roughly $14 billion over the next five years to deploy the open RAN technology. The company has partnered with Ericsson to deploy 70% of its wireless network traffic across open-capable platforms by 2026.

In India, however, the technology could see some headway only with the launch of 6G, which is expected to happen by 2030.

“We have been doing the trials for the last two-three years, but we have never reached a level where we can say that we can deploy it commercially,” Jagbir Singh, chief technology officer at Vodafone Idea, said during an industry event last week.

According to Singh, even during the discussions on commercial deployment of open RAN technology, the price is coming out to be more expensive than traditional RAN.

“From operators’ point of view, why should I deploy a product, which is not stable, and which is expensive,” Singh said. Lately, unavailability of chipset vendors, other proven software developers and suppliers, and limited interest from companies like Nokia, Ericsson, others is hindering the uptake of open RAN, experts said.

Further, interoperability of open RAN technology as well as security issues within the network are some of the factors, which are being considered before the deployment of technology.

Last week, Vodafone Idea said it started a pilot deployment of commercial Open RAN technology in collaboration with Mavenir, a provider of open radio access network technology. The company said, Mavenir is in the advanced commercial phase of deployment of technology.

Bharti Airtel has also looped in Mavenir to conduct trials of this technology.

“We have to get the equation of cost and performance right. Second is, what we are seeing is that Open RAN is actually evolving fast but the technology still lacks full feature parity compared to traditional systems,” said Saurabh Mittal, vice president and head standards & technology at Bharti Airtel.

According to Mittal, with too many components and players being involved in open RAN, there is a concern that who will be responsible if something goes wrong, and how will we debug the problem?

“We also need a sustainable ecosystem with regard to open RAN, which means whatever we do has to last for 10 years, a general network of life cycle,” Mittal added.

According to industry experts, open RAN technology has missed the 4G opportunity as well as 5G now, as most of the deployment has happened. If all the issues regarding open RAN are resolved, there will be a business opportunity from Vodafone Idea which is yet to deploy 5G as well as from equipment replacement demands of 4G and 5G, experts said.

Reliance Jio has developed its own end-to-end 5G stack and said its radios are compliant to open RAN. Financial Express

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