MUMBAI, India — Global 5G adoption is set to take a major leap forward from this year.
In 2026, 3.5 billion 5G subscriptions are forecast, with India accounting for 27 percent, according to the November 2020 Ericsson Mobility Report.
While India will not have commercial 5G ready until 2022, the most recent government report says, telecom operators including Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel are already testing 5G capabilities.
In the past, telecoms had to depend on single vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, Samsung, and others for end-to-end solutions (hardware and software) for building their networks. Now, telecom operators are increasingly relying on Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) technology.
With the government’s focus is on Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India), references to Open RAN are appearing in news articles related to India’s 5G ambitions.
What is Open RAN?
“Open RAN modularizes radio access networks,” said Shiv Putcha, founder of Mandala Insights.
“Earlier, everything was fully integrated and offered only by a handful of infrastructure vendors,” said Putcha.
“They offered end-to-end solutions, which worked on proprietary hardware and software across the core network, transmissions as well as radios,” he said.
Open RAN technology replaces that rigid approach. The focus now is on the latest generation, 5G, though Open RAN is compatible with 3G and 4G networks.
As an analogy, a personal computer can be customized with a mix of components and can run many software applications from different vendors. The cost would increase significantly if consumers were forced to buy all hardware and software from only one vendor. Open RAN technology essentially solves this issue for telecoms.
Competitive 5G rates for customers
Open RAN virtualizes many functions, using software and telecom clouds instead of hardware. This gives telecoms the flexibility to mix and match vendors based on their needs and budget constraints. Ultimately, this should result in lower prices for 5G customers, as Open RAN cuts upfront capital and operational expenditures.
“But the flip side is that the interoperability between different small vendors has to work at a large scale,” said Putcha.
“There haven’t been enough real-life cases which have demonstrated that.” He said the only place where Open RAN has been used at some scale is in Japan, by digital services firm Rakuten.
“What we need to have, ideally, is a standards-based Open RAN solution,” Mathew Oommen, president of Reliance Jio, said in September 2020.
“For Open RAN, we are certain that with trusted partners and trusted nations, we will realize the full potential,” he said.
Reliance Jio has partnered with chipmaker Qualcomm to develop its custom 5G radio, integrated with its core 5G network.
Bharti Airtel conducted field trials in January 2021 in Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Telangana state, to showcase its ability to launch 5G.
“This demonstration emphatically validates the 5G readiness of Airtel’s network across all domains — radio, core and transport,” said Gopal Vittal, chief executive, Bharti Airtel.
Open RAN global standards
Several global telecom operators formed the O-RAN Alliance in 2018 to make the RAN industry more intelligent, open, virtualized, and fully interoperable for mobile networks. All the Indian telecoms are members of the alliance.
Last month, European telecoms Vodafone Group, Orange, Telefonica, and Deutsche Telekom signed a memorandum of understanding on implementing Open RAN networks across Europe. One of the major points in the MoU is using the technology to offer a “more competitive 5G environment enabling supplier diversification in Europe as per EU 5G Security Toolbox guidelines”.
Putcha doesn’t think Indian telecoms would collectively agree to something similar because of the cut-throat competition.
“Bharti Airtel and Vodafone may come together to create common standards, but I think most operators will chart their own path,” he said.
Open RAN and Self-reliant India
Using an Open RAN network could boost India’s telecom equipment vendor sector as well. Since Open RAN relies on open standards software, there is room for Indian software companies to ensure the smooth operation of a telecom network despite different hardware and software components.
“It will definitely help the Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) movement, and some companies have already started showing momentum in this regard,” said Putcha.
“In the field of telecommunications, developments related to Open RAN and software-defined networks are opening new opportunities for Indian entities to enter into the network equipment market,” P.D. Vaghela, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, said at a Digital India summit in January 2021.
“We can leverage the capabilities of the IT sector to build, operate and maintain software products which can serve India as well as the global telecom industry at a reasonable price,” Vaghela said.
Reliance Jio’s Oommen has expressed a willingness to work with relevant members in India on key technologies.
“The fundamental architecture of 5G, the way I see it, will be open along with open interfaces, disaggregated, modular and distributed with having edge data centers and where the capabilities of programmability, automation and security are inherent to the build and design. This is where O-RAN will fit in,” said Oommen.
“Open RAN networks also let telecoms tweak their networks to offer specific kinds of services. For instance, if telecoms want to offer cloud gaming or AR/VR on their 5G networks, they would have to configure their Open RAN networks accordingly,” said Putcha.
“Each telecom will have to decide their own monetization opportunities and accordingly tweak their Open RAN networks,” he said.
(Edited by Namrata Acharya and Judith Isacoff. Map by Urvashi Makwana.)
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