Spotlight on Tech

Telecom’s Tough Questions: Is Open RAN the answer for telecom?

By
Geoff Hollingworth
Chief Marketing Officer
Rakuten Symphony
May 26, 2022
7
minute read

The initial growth of GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) is undoubtedly a telecom industry success story. GSM standards enabled the same blueprint to be used in country after country and allowed equipment manufacturers to become giant global suppliers. But what made mobile a global phenomenon is not what guarantees success for individual operators today. 

In fact, global standards for mobile have had some unintended consequences. The de facto lock-in to an 8-10-year investment cycle for one. The consolidation in the supply market onto a small number of large equipment (and related services) providers for another. Increasing complexity with each generation may be a given, but it rarely seems to come with the benefit of actually replacing earlier generations of kit. Aging telecom technology tends to hang around for far longer than is truly desirable. 

"Is Open RAN the mobile industry’s answer to addressing their problems? The short answer is no. It is not an answer, but it is a foundational enabler."
- Geoff Hollingworth, CMO, Rakuten Symphony

Ultimately, the combination of a reducing pool of vendors, and the self-referencing success of the generational standards process, has led to the pace of innovation for any individual operator slowing down. 

Is Open RAN the Answer?

Open RAN has attracted significant industry momentum as a way of addressing these problems. The Open RAN movement was born not out of the need for greater network performance, capacity or features, but by the need for more innovation and choice of suppliers. 

"Diversification of supply chain is good for innovation, competition and regional resiliency, which is increasingly important in a geo-politically complicated world." 

That certainly sounds promising. But is Open RAN the mobile industry’s answer to addressing their problems? The short answer is no. It is not an answer, but it is a foundational enabler.

In my view, open RAN is just one part of the strategy required for success in the mobile business. Despite its benefits, it is possible to adopt Open RAN and end up in a worse situation than adopting the traditional model of today.  

To operate a modern, open, multi-vendor, disaggregated, cloud-native network requires industrialized automation that works at scale. The true magic of this can be found in Symworld and is our key differentiator. All operators want to change for the better. Symworld enables operators to scale and accelerate their networks without increasing headcount. The software and the platform do the hard work of scaling. At Rakuten Mobile we have now deployed over 270,000 live cells and the total operational headcount is only about 250 people. We intend to never increase this headcount since they monitor the software and platform and the software and platform manage the scale. This is no different from how high-speed trading now works in the stock market. Humans don’t study the stocks; they study the algorithms.

So If Open RAN is not the answer, why is it a foundational enabler?

Because it allows choice at a smaller component level. And choice inside what was previously a very large, closed black box, allows new innovative solutions to be found and applied. This allows all the separate components to be programmable and horizontalized through the Symworld Platform. Rakuten Mobile now has six different radio vendors; most status quo networks have been forced to only have two. Diversification of supply chain is good for innovation, competition and regional resiliency, which is increasingly important in a geo-politically complicated world.  

"Open RAN’s goal of greater diversity in the telecom supply chain remains worthwhile. But operators must not limit ownership to the part of the business responsible for the radio access network."

Even some proponents of Open RAN don't expect it to deliver cost reductions any time soon. 

We argue that cost – or more correctly price – is not fixed but rather a function of creativity and challenge. At Rakuten Symphony we have a different approach to commercials and procurement. We work with companies of all sizes. We first state what we need our stated business outcome to be. We respect the needs of partners and suppliers to be able to achieve their needed business goals. Then we discuss how we can work together to achieve both. We reimagine the solution. We have reduced active electronics from cell sites to reduce operational costs. We have reduced the number of required connectors per base station from three to one simple plug, to enable less connector costs, installation complexity and time, which has saved us millions in large scale deployments. It has been independently verified that Rakuten Mobile has saved 40% Capex and 30% Opex through its operational and strategy choices.   

"Ultimately, the combination of a reducing pool of vendors, and the self-referencing success of the generational standards process, has led to the pace of innovation for any individual operator slowing down." 

At the end of the day, it’s a mistake to categorize open RAN as a technology, or simply as a course correction to an existing RAN strategy. If anything, the decision to adopt open principles in the RAN should be an entirely logical consequence of a business strategy aimed at driving down the total cost of operations, without sacrificing quality or security. 

The Revolution needs to start every day, not wait ten years for “yet another G” 

Telecom’s biggest challenges today come down to its fundamental operating model. The discussion about open RAN today is not about whether it will be adopted – almost all stances in the industry point to a “when”, not “if” question. The question is how to accelerate change with fixed operational costs. The Rakuten Symphony answer to that is Symworld, the only industrialized automation platform that has been proven at scale.

Open RAN’s goal of greater diversity in the telecom supply chain remains worthwhile. But operators must not limit ownership to the part of the business responsible for the radio access network. The real payoff from open RAN comes from tackling more fundamental issues. 

Open RAN
Future of Telecom
Mobile
Symworld™
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