Spotlight on Tech

Is Open RAN really making a difference?

Geoff Hollingworth
Chief Marketing Officer
Rakuten Symphony
November 21, 2023
minute read

Is Open RAN delivering transformational results?

Its proponents will refer to public statements from the likes of Rakuten Mobile, Vodafone and NTT Docomo for proof of its impact. They’ll point you to validated research that networks powered by Open RAN are indeed delivering as stated. They’ll sing about cost savings.

They’ll be correct, but this won’t tell the full story. And with every story, understanding the nuance can mean the difference between being the hero or the one who doesn’t make it to the ending.

Running shoes don’t make you faster. If you want to run fast, you need discipline, training, strength, a good diet, proper technique, the right mindset—and then, better shoes can make you faster. You can invest in both at the same time, but without training in parallel, there will be no improvement. Even worse, you may hurt yourself.

Open RAN doesn’t make you more efficient, quicker or cost-effective. Moving operations to software, automating at scale, and moving flexibly without vendor islands allows the horizontal interfaces and openness of Open RAN to put you in a winning position.

In fact, Open RAN on its own is potentially a bad idea if operations and procurement aren’t redesigned to support the changes it causes. Operations needs to manage disaggregated supply chains at both a software functional level and a hardware platform level, and dynamically deploy the radio software as efficiently as possible. This is equivalent to the training required before putting on new shoes and running a race.

Open RAN does not improve the health of mobile operators unless mobile operators are already working to improve the health of operations—undertaking tasks like converting manual procedures to automated procedures, manual workflows to automated workflows, and human-led tasks to software-led tasks.

In all highly effective organizations, people no longer run a business, software does. Data is mined across the organization and used to continuously improve outcomes.

As Will Page of Tarzan Economics says, telecom “needs to let go of the old vine and grab hold of the new one.” Telecom has not let go as fast as other sectors.

Clinging to old approaches 

Despite being a forerunner in connecting the world, telecom lags other sectors that have thrived on the internet. Blame dated business models and operations. Where leading tech companies have embraced software and automation, telecom clings to hardware-centric, manually intensive practices.

The radio access network is proof of this. It is practically begging for comprehensive digitalization and automation. But this will require programmable access to all network components. While it's possible to achieve operations and business performance improvements through digitalization and automation alone, Open RAN can give a big boost to these efforts. Simply, it allows for a horizontal supply chain and the disaggregation of RAN into smaller, standardized units, which is essential for the full digitalization and lifecycle management of mobile networks.

But this is where Open RAN proponents sometimes miss a crucial point: without the successful implementation of software-driven automation, Open RAN could actually be counterproductive. We’ve got this tendency to focus on technology as a solution rather than addressing how business is conducted. Open RAN, while transformative, should be seen not a magic bullet that solves telecom’s problems but rather an enabler of more competitive business operations and outcomes.

Not quite the makings of hype-worthy headlines, but that’s the point. We need to take some of the pressure and pollicization off Open RAN so that it can deliver only what each business that uses it needs. Open RAN isn’t here to save us, its true role is to merely support grander ambitions.

Speed and cost of execution

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue plaguing telecom: speed and cost of execution. These factors render telecom uncompetitive in offering value beyond basic connectivity.

Open RAN's advantage lies in its ability to reconfigure software components to suit specific coverage solutions, facilitating more efficient and dynamic deployments. Operations can be automatically configured and managed, bringing anew level of agility to network setup and maintenance.

This shift not only improves efficiency but also opens the door to greater supplier diversity, tackling supply chain fragility and competitiveness in the process.

So, is Open RAN making a difference? It will for the winners. Just like running, those that manage to go faster wear more appropriate shoes.

Now is the time for telecom’s narrative to shift from viewing Open RAN as a standalone solution to recognizing it as a crucial enabler of a broader strategy for software-driven business transformation.  

This mindset shift will truly determine the future telecom market, where efficiency, diversity and innovation are the only currency that matters.

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