In 2019 we saw great progress for the open source telecom networking community, with lots of announcements coming out of the TIP Summit in November, and trials and deployments across the year with some key examples including:

  • Using open RAN gear, Internet para Todos, a Telefonica investment, connected about half a million customers in Peru to 4G services for the first time.
  • MTN committing to deploy Parallel Wireless open RAN solutions to around 5 per cent of its networks in Africa.
  • Vodafone Group’s game-changer tender which opens up its European footprint for open RAN solutions.
  • Rakuten Mobile, a greenfield operator building its 5G networks using open and virtual RAN architecture.

(For further insights on the above check out TIP Summit: unlocking vendor lock-in with Open RAN)

Today, while we are still in the first few weeks of 2020, new and exciting developments in the open source networking ecosystem are inciting more activity: two, in particular, stand out as instructive.

O2 UK’s open RAN partnerships boost a host of network enhancements
This month Telefonica’s UK arm O2 announced a partnership with three challenger vendors planning to commercially deploy open RAN solutions across the country.

DenseAir – to power 5G V2V and V2X testing
Working with DenseAir, O2 will focus on 4G and 5G networks over the open RAN solution. At the Millbrook Proving Ground, a technology park for vehicle testing in the UK, the partners will provide 5G public and private networks enabling testing and development of CAV technology. This collaboration will power the testing for ITS networks and enable the first V2V and V2X testing over open RAN.

Mavenir – to enhance coverage and capacity
This partnership will see O2’s coverage and capacity in high-density environments in London enhanced. Locations will include shopping centres and stadiums.

WaveMobile – to cover not-spots
The pair will develop solutions to provide community-based mobile services in so-called not spots. The vendor is already providing O2 with its open RAN network on several sites across the UK including carrying O2 customers.

As O2 is expecting the work to accelerate over the next 18 to 24 months, these partnerships highlight the growing vendor ecosystem which provides open source networking solutions and showcase a vast range of capabilities, while also making it clear O2 is still putting a diverse set of vendors through their paces.

Open source networking to get a boost from Washington
In light of persistent pressure from the US to exclude some vendors from global 5G networks, politicians around the world have taken notice of the small set of suppliers the telecom industry has been relying on to build mobile networks.

Of course, operators have long sought agile and cost-effective ways to build and maintain their infrastructure in response to persistent cost or cash flow pressures, and a broad set of suppliers is important on that front. But recent supply chain security concerns and efforts have brought awareness about the limited number of mobile network vendors to the fore.

Against this backdrop, the open source networking movement could receive an unusual boost. In the early weeks of 2020, the US Senate introduced bipartisan legislation which (luckily for open source networking) could see the Federal Communications Commission provide more than $1 billion to help develop western-based alternative vendor technologies.

The largest share of the monies, around $750 million or up to 5 per cent of annual auction proceeds sourced from new auctioned spectrum licences, would be reserved for open architecture (including open RAN) and software-defined development models.

While security concerns may have ignited this move amongst politicians, operators understand the open source model offers benefits beyond security including cost saving, leaner operations and a reduced vendor reliance (to name a few). This is the second key catalyst for open RAN in 2020, providing a financial boost for research and development of open source solutions.

What could slow down achieving scale?
While these developments showcase the immense accomplishments of operators and challenger vendors alike, there remain further barriers to scaling up which must be addressed.

From our recent work with operators to better understand their network transformation strategies, a limited vendor ecosystem was highlighted as the greatest barrier to deployment of open source and open networking technologies. The good news? The progress we’ve seen in the first few weeks of 2020 alone. O2’s announcement showcased three challenger vendors with strengths which will support coverage and capacity enhancement, provide connections to not-spots, and power V2V and V2X. And while the O2 plans show the deployment of open RAN in targeted settings, rather than large (national/regional) scale, the general path of adoption makes sense as the following two points illustrate:

  1. High density deployments rely on expensive small cells. Due to the open interfaces of open RAN solutions, operators can share the cost of a given mast with peers and financial partners to reduce the effective cost.
  2. The coverage of not-spots or sparsely populated areas with weak coverage traditionally have relied on fibre rollouts which, again, are commercially often unviable. Operators which can subcontract the capex to an open RAN supplier, such as in the O2-WaveMobile partnership, can retain the customer relationship while leasing spectral capacity (the local network) to their supplier and, thus, saving money and protecting assets from being stranded.

These building blocks, while small scale steps, will lead to larger deployments as more companies try out the concept and report back successful best practices, hopefully leading to a snowball effect attracting more operators as well as a larger share of their networks running on open solutions.

Further, funding support out of countries such as the US (and one can be hopeful more will follow the example) will further enable the industry to build a diverse supply chain. And, as other operators such as Telefonica and Vodafone Group continue to spearhead the movement, concerns around RoI and tech maturity will diminish over time.

As to lack of internal ownership and expertise, this highlights the greater role industry partners including system integrators like IBM and vendors with teams providing E2E services, for example Mavenir, will need to play, not only in stitching the technologies provided together, but also by coordinating or even educating internal staff as part of a handover process to enable greater ownership.

– Armita Satari – analyst, core mobility, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.