A few weeks back, an operator customer asked if I would present some findings from the Network Transformation research we did late in 2019 to their executive committee, with a focus on open networking technologies. How are operators looking at open tech? How quickly are they moving on it? How are they positioned in comparison to what we’re hearing from other operators around the world? It’s the best part of the job when you’re an analyst.

Then, just as I was congratulating myself for prepping a full draft almost one week early, a handful of announcements were made which made me rethink the key messages I would focus on, one from Rakuten Mobile and two from Mavenir.

The news from Rakuten Mobile got plenty of press coverage. That’s to be expected from nearly anything the operator does on the networks front, but this time it was a little different. Rather than just innovate in the delivery of services (and the deployment of its network) in Japan, new work with NEC aims to offer 4G/5G core capabilities to customers across the globe.

Mavenir, meanwhile, put out two decidedly less showy announcements focused on system integration partnerships with General Datatech and Goodman Networks. Each covered backing for open RAN deployment in the US, including solution planning and design; supply chain management; warehousing and logistics; deployment and testing; RF optimisation; performance monitoring; field services; and lifecycle support.

Flashy or not, though, the core message from each of the players was similar.

Bear with me for a moment: I understand the announcements were fundamentally different. Rakuten Mobile is moving forward on a new business model for offering 4G/5G core network capabilities on a global basis. Mavenir is developing partnerships for deploying open RAN hardware and software in the US. Ultimately, however, each company is focused on a similar aim: making open networking solutions easier to acquire and deploy.

In Mavenir’s case, this is done by engaging third parties to help add professional services capabilities to their networking solutions. In Rakuten Mobile’s case, this acquisition and deployment support comes in the form of new commercial models tied to cloud native network assets.

Now, this might seem like a relatively straightforward message (who doesn’t want to make technology easy to consume), but there is a key message here: open networking technologies, including open RAN, are not necessarily easy. It’s an important message because it tends to get lost in the (well-deserved) noise around the word open, despite the fact open source, open networking and virtualisation technologies represent the same type of telecom sea change as the move from circuit to packet networking.

Compared with solutions which leverage proprietary interfaces (or standardised ones which are not open) and/or proprietary hardware, open and virtual solutions are often positioned as a panacea for complicated deployments and commercial arrangements. This positioning falls down on two fronts.

  • Expertise. Integration issues ranked number two when we asked operators about the major obstacles to introducing open source and open networking technologies: 55 per cent see this as a challenge. In part, this can be seen as a function of will: the willingness of incumbent vendors to integrate with new suppliers and technologies. At the same time, it can be seen as a function of expertise, the in-house skills and capabilities necessary for integrating new technologies. This is where system integration support with a specific focus on open comes in handy.
  • Go-to-market. Even where an operator has the skills to integrate new open technologies into their network, or have partners in place to help, suppliers need to deliver those technologies in ways which are easy to consume and form a part of solutions, not just point products. Well, they need to do that if they want to reach the vaunted position of partner and be successful in their sales efforts. System integration offers help on the solution part. Cloud consumption models help with the consumption part.

And what does all mean for my customer and my presentation?

Well, the operator is by no means small, and its commitment to open RAN solutions is well known. But the fact it is still engaging with outside experts (along with people like me) to talk about their progress, technology challenges, business challenges and market trajectories is a testimony to the fact open networks and related technologies might be important, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.

– Peter Jarich – head of 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.