5G deployments are well underway in most developed markets. Arguably, Japan, Korea, China and the USA are all ahead of the UK and Europe in 5G rollout speeds and investment.
This may be beneficial when it comes to adoption of Open RAN in the UK – as it could leave larger parts of the networks for open RAN rollout – especially as all large European MNOs have recently aligned in their public commitment to Open RAN.
The emergence of Rakuten in Japan, Dish in the USA and 1&1 in Germany as 5G Open RAN MNO pioneers is helping to push the supplier ecosystem forward and to increase demand-side confidence with other MNOs.
The USA, Japan, Korea, Europe and more lately India are emerging as centres of substantive international collaboration on R&D, product development and interoperability for open RAN and public network infrastructure in general, driven mostly by strategic infrastructure security concerns.
American, European and Japanese operators have been early signatories of TIP and the O-RAN Alliance. More recently, direct bilateral and multilateral inter-governmental collaboration initiatives announced by DCMS and their counterparts in Japan, Korea and India aim to support and coordinate collaborative initiatives to accelerate the availability of Open RAN networks and in some cases lay foundations for 6G R&D collaboration.
Recent security and geopolitical considerations around digital infrastructures, technologies and supply chains are adding further layers of nuance and complexity, as evidenced by ongoing government and regulatory interventions in these markets.
European mobile operators and vendors have been early participants of Open RAN initiatives, but their commercial single-RAN network strategies have often lagged their R&D interests.
Recent announcements indicate this is fast changing for most. European MNOs are now in the driving seat – making commitments to roll out large parts of their networks with Open RAN and pushing national and EU government policy to support Open RAN acceleration activities.
The objectives of the European Commission (EC) around 5G and Open RAN appear to concentrate on promoting industry growth, security and “digital sovereignty”; supplier diversification is seen mostly in this context. This is not unexpected, given that two of the three big incumbent vendors (Nokia and Ericsson) are European, and this is referenced in relevant reports published by the European Commission or by EU member states. The report on the cybersecurity of Open RAN published in May 2022 presents a sceptical view and highlights ‘cybersecurity’ as a significant challenge for Open RAN in general, and in particular O-RAN specifications, which it assesses are still to reach maturity in this area. The European Union is actively supporting 5G innovation, trials and ecosystem formation with a number of 5G programmes, including Horizon 2020, but stated objectives and assessments of Open RAN readiness indicate a divergence of approaches compared to the UK, Korea, Japan, India and North America.
On the demand side, Europe's big five mobile network operator groups (Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Vodafone) are seeking concerted European support and EU investment in Open RAN with an MoU issued in November 2021. This was preceded by four of these operators signing an earlier MoU stating their public commitment to Open RAN in January 2021.
All of them have signalled a commitment to volume deployments over time, aiming to motivate investment from the supplier ecosystem. Vodafone has publicly pledged to deploy 2,500 Open RAN sites in the UK countryside by 2027.
Three of these European operator groups are active in the UK market: Vodafone, Telefonica (with its share in VMO2) and DT (with its share in BT/EE). They also carry out some of their global Open RAN development activities in the UK.
Vodafone Group Chief Technology Officer Johan Wibergh said: “Open RAN has the power to stimulate European tech innovation using the expertise of the companies that develop it and the governments who support it. Opening up the market to new suppliers, with our ambition and government advocacy, will mean faster 5G deployment, cost-saving network efficiencies and world-class services.
“We remain committed to rolling out our Open RAN program across Europe, and we’re taking it even further. We aim to open R&D labs for new, smaller suppliers to develop their products. But to do this we need a supportive investment environment and political backing, and we urge European governments to join us in creating the Open RAN ecosystem.”
Enrique Blanco, Chief Technology & Information Officer (CTIO) at Telefónica, said: “Open RAN is the natural evolution of radio access technologies and it will be key for 5G networks. Telefónica believes the whole industry must work together to make it a reality. I am excited to be partnering with major European operators to promote the development of an open technology that will help to enhance the flexibility, efficiency and security of our networks. This is an extraordinary opportunity for the European industry not only to promote the development of 5G but also to participate in its sustainable technological development.”
Michaël Trabbia, Chief Technology & Information Officer (CTIO) at Orange, said: "Open RAN is the next major evolution of 5G RAN. Orange believes it is a strong opportunity for existing and emerging European actors to develop O-RAN based products and services, starting with indoor and rural areas. This evolution should be supported by a large European ecosystem (academics and research, software and hardware developers, integrators, public funding for R&D) as it is a unique occasion to reinforce European competitiveness and leadership in the global market.”
“Open RAN is about network innovation, flexibility and faster rollout. Deutsche Telekom is committed to its promotion, development and adoption to ensure the best network experience for our customers. To seize this opportunity, it is critical that we join forces with our leading European partners to foster a diverse, competitive and secure 4G/5G ecosystem based on open RAN solutions”, said Claudia Nemat, Chief Technology Officer of Deutsche Telekom. “Through our open labs and community activities, we facilitate smaller players to enter the market with their solutions. To build on this foundational work, we urge government support and funding for community activities that will strengthen the European ecosystem and leadership in 5G.”
In November 2021, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telecom Italia (TIM), Telefónica and Vodafone published a paper that describes the role that Europe and Open RAN will play in future networks, and highlights what they identify as "the urgent need for Europe to make Open RAN a strategic priority", using an analysis of the Open RAN value-chain and current players. The paper reveals important strengths and gaps that EU policymakers will need to consider and presents a set of policy recommendations for Europe to maintain a lead in the development and deployment of next generation mobile networks.
Japan and Korea have led the way in mobile network rollout speed and market adoption since the age of 3G. Increasingly, however, they have been falling behind in R&D and global reach of their technology suppliers. With 5G and Open RAN, they appear to have tried to address this gap, with a coherent push from national governments, vendors and national operators.
India is also increasingly emerging as an important R&D hub for Open RAN baseband software.
Key players in the broader region are Samsung, NEC, Fujitsu, NTT, Rakuten and Mavenir.
Japan, India and Australia collaborate in areas of public network security with the USA – this is within the greater context of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad). A number of Open RAN initiatives have been kicked off following the Track 1.5 dialogue on Open RAN announced at the September 2021 Quad Leaders Summit, where the governments of Australia, India, Japan and the USA emphasised the importance of secure and trusted network infrastructure, and the need for greater vendor diversity across the telecoms ecosystem. Some of these initiatives are supported by the Open RAN Policy Coalition.
Commercially, Rakuten Mobile network is arguably the earliest example of a nationwide commercial cloud native Open RAN network. It has served as an important reference case study for the industry and proving ground for many vendors.
Rakuten was an early adopter and poster child of Open RAN with a full 4G/5G network in Japan; operating since October 2019 at national scale, delivering several thousands of sites and a rapid network growth, going from 23% 4G population coverage at launch in 2020 to reach 96% 4G population coverage in 2022. It is a greenfield cloud-native Open RAN network with no network legacy to weigh it down.
Rakuten built its own full ecosystem of networks and OSS by integrating 3rd party products into a coherent platform, which they have branded the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) and spinning off Rakuten Symphony as a new company to leverage and export this platform in the global marketplace. Rakuten Symphony has signed up 15 MNOs partnerships.
Showing its interest in the European market, Rakuten Symphony has established European presence and investments in the UK, France and Germany. Rakuten Symphony UK Ltd, is based in London and led by Nastasi Karaiskos. The UK company is focused on development and testing 4G and 5G Open RAN software and hardware for Rakuten Symphony, leveraging and expanding Altiostar’s R&D centre and Open RAN engineering lab in the country. The company states that its expansion of R&D in the UK will put Rakuten Symphony in an ideal position to support the UK government in meeting its ambition for 35% of mobile network traffic in the UK to be carried over open and interoperable RAN architectures by 2030.
NTT DOCOMO has also announced its own 5G Open RAN ecosystem, branded ‘OREC’, suggesting that it seeks to leverage the substantial virtualisation expertise of NTT Data and its Open RAN expertise of working with NEC and Fujitsu, to follow a similar global market dissemination strategy. DOCOMO has made an Open RAN lab accessible to operators around the world, aiming to work with them to deploy, provision and operate 5G Open RAN networks. NTT’s OREC ecosystem comprises solutions from 13 vendors, including Japanese vendors NEC, Fujitsu and NTT DATA Corporation and many more from North American ones – Dell, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Mavenir, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, Red Hat, VMware, Wind River, AMD-Xilinx.
The entry into the telecoms and Open RAN market of established and new USA tech suppliers, and especially the hyperscalers (Meta, Intel, Microsoft, AWS, VMWare, DELL, Redhat, Airspan), could help accelerate innovation, competition, investment and commercial adoption – across all communications market segments.
Such developments could be of some help to UK integrators, neutral hosts and smaller, community or private network service providers, who could take advantage of mature, scalable, ready-to-run 5G cloud platforms provided and supported by global actors at scale. It may create opportunities for new cloud-native 5G service providers to emerge under the right conditions – like Dish, Rakuten or 1&1.
The Open RAN Policy Coalition represents a group of companies to promote policies that advance the adoption of open and interoperable Radio Access Network solutions, to advance innovation, competition and supply chain diversity for advanced wireless technologies including 5G. Its underlying focus appears to be on supply chain security and cyber security with a geopolitical nuance around countering the dominance of China and creating a resurgence in technology developed in the US and allied countries – also aligning to relevant Quad initiatives.
A US-focused organisation, membership of the Coalition is dominated by American technology leaders and MNOs (including Google, Meta, AWS, Intel, HP, Dell, Cisco, Verizon, Dish, IBM, Altiostar), with notable participation from Indo-Pacific MNOs and Vendors (NTT, NEC, Fujitsu, Samsung, Jio, Airtel) and also two big European Telcos – Vodafone, Telefonica – and a European vendor Nokia.
The Coalition states that “members believe that by standardizing or “opening” the protocols and interfaces between the various subcomponents (radios, hardware and software) in the RAN, we move to an environment where networks can be deployed with a more modular design without being dependent upon a single vendor. Standardizing and developing open interfaces will allow us to ensure interoperability across different players and potentially lower the barrier to entry for new innovators.”
The Coalition has a focus on (US) government policy that would facilitate a thriving marketplace of suppliers based on open interfaces. To that end, the coalition will promote policies that:
- Support global development of open and interoperable wireless technologies
- Signal government support for open and interoperable solutions
- Use government procurement to support vendor diversity
Fund research and development
- Remove barriers to 5G deployment
- Avoid heavy-handed or prescriptive solutions
The Coalition hailed the recent US CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 as a “landmark legislation that contains funding for research and development critical to increasing supplier diversity, as well as the ongoing deployment of Open RAN”. The Act makes available over $1.5Billion in funding to promote, develop and deploy open and interoperable radio access networks. This is comparable to the total funding extended by the UK Government for DCMS 5G Trials and Testbeds and other 5G and Telecom Supply Diversification initiatives since 2019.
The UK Government’s Open RAN Principles policy paper, published in April 2022, acknowledges considering the views of industry bodies such as the Open RAN Policy Coalition (referencing its roadmap) and TIP.
Commercially, Dish Smart 5GTM - is a pioneering greenfield cloud-native 5G Open RAN national network in the USA. Commercial service launched in summer 2022 across 120 major and smaller cities, providing 20% population coverage at launch rising to an ambitious 70% target by summer 2023. Dish is partnering with AWS, Cisco, CommScope, Dell, Fujitsu, Intel, JMA, Mavenir, Nokia, Oracle, Palo Alto, Qualcomm, Samsung and VMware to build their 5G cloud-native network, claiming to be the only major network in the world built primarily with American technology.