Day Four of this year’s Fair Tech Forum, an annual event that brings together stakeholders from government, industry and academia to discuss a range of technology issues, placed a spotlight on the rapid development of Open RAN and its potential to connect communities across the world, from major economies to developing nations. While roadblocks remain to the rollout of open, disaggregated networks, panellists agreed that the wheels are already in motion for this major telecoms trend.
Opportunities of Open Networks
Introducing the session “Will Open RAN Democratise Access to Connectivity?”, Access Partnership’s Colin Thomson set the scene by underlining that while a handful of vendors have traditionally dominated mobile network infrastructure, multiple stakeholders across government and industry are now pushing for openness and choice. Scott Bailey, Deputy Director of Telecoms Diversification at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) within the UK Government, echoed this sentiment during his keynote address; in the face of increased consolidation, he emphasised the importance of accelerating the development of Open RAN to diversify the market and make it more accessible to new vendors.
Throughout the session, other panellists also highlighted the potential benefits of open networks for improving choice, flexibility and the quality of services for both consumers and enterprises. Tom Koutsky, Digital Inclusion Team Lead at USAID’s Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub, opined that Open RAN, in conjunction with 5G, promises a substantial leap in the speed and capacity of future networks, while Microsoft’s Director for 5G Policy, Micaela Giuhat, highlighted that the increased coverage provided by these networks can help to bridge the digital divide and connect more people in remote areas.
A Collective Effort
A key tenet of the discussion on ways of implementing open networks to democratise connectivity was the necessity for collaboration. Representing the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), one of the largest coalitions of stakeholders in the telecommunications industry, Executive Director Attilio Zani noted that open networks will have be flexible enough to meet the needs of various operators and countries, making cooperation between these different actors vital as new technology is rolled out. Underlining TIP’s role in the process, Zani explained that it builds, tests and deploys technology, as well as facilitating collaboration to accelerate outcomes.
Eugina Jordan, Vice President of Marketing at Parallel Wireless, Inc, advocated this attention to cooperation from the vendor perspective, adding that “greater choice breeds greater collaboration” as new players enter the market.
There is also a need to engage with governments and decisionmakers in the developing world, as Tom Koutsky suggests. Championing a global rollout of Open RAN and associated technologies to truly democratise connectivity, Koutsky discussed how there is a significant interest in greenfield builds in rural areas. By providing greater access to the digital economy for people in more remote locations, an opportunity is created to support local development. Again, though, collaboration is key to meet the requirements of these networks, many of which are founded on legacy systems.
Addressing the Challenges
Although there was significant consensus among the panel that Open RAN can represent a powerful driver of development for other technologies and global connectivity, it is not an entirely smooth road ahead. For instance, Micaela Giuhat argued that there is a high cost and complexity involved in the implementation of these networks; “it is important to create an environment where innovation can be implemented quickly, but this is a challenge,” she suggests.
Eugina Jordan offered a different angle on this issue, pointing to the efforts of Internet para Todos (IpT) to deploy a network in Peru in under a year. Her view was that the expanding role for other advanced technologies, particularly automation and machine learning, would drive faster deployment of open networks in the future, overcoming issues with implementation. Giuhat responded to this, noting that while IpT’s achievement was impressive, a year may already be too long for the deployment of a network. It should also be noted that the kinds of challenges facing Open RAN can vary a lot between different geographies.
Looking to the Future
Despite some reservations with the current status of Open RAN, everyone on the panel agreed with one key principle: this technology and route to democratised connectivity is the future. In the face of security concerns surrounding Chinese vendors, never has the need to rekindle trust and embrace openness been more important. Ultimately, as Attilio Zani emphasised in his closing comments, there is lot of innovating and failing that must be done “together” before the telecommunications industry can reach its destination: government and industry must work in unison to achieve this common goal.
For the vendors in attendance, their ask of governments was to cultivate an environment that is conducive to innovation; too many restrictions can impede the development that is sorely needed and slow progress. On the other hand, governments need vendors to build out in the open so that trust can be invested in the marketplace. Attention will need to be paid to security, cost and flexibility as networks are rolled out, and this transformation must be delivered in a sustainable fashion. However, even though there are challenges ahead, stakeholders are already holding the pivotal discussions that will guide the journey of Open RAN into a brighter future.