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Open RAN Must Do a Better Job of Facing Its Critics

Swathes of the industry remain unconvinced open RAN is a fix for the big problems it originally identified.

"People's republic" is an obvious red flag when used with zeal in a country's official name, and "democratic people's republic" is an even bigger one. Chances are it's a police state whose ruler has all the popular appeal of scabies. There's now a similar convention in telecom, where "open" has suffered years of abuse at the hands of various industry groups and companies.

Intel has gone even further with "FlexRAN," its reference design intended for open and virtual radio access networks. The allusion to flexibility might as well be some poor attempt at ironic humor, like a Tiny Tim nickname for the classroom giant, because FlexRAN works only with Intel's own hardware, creating the "lock-in" that open RAN and virtualization are supposedly trying to end. Unable to run the technology on its own chips, rival AMD has described FlexRAN as like having a car without the keys.

All this probably sounds very harsh on open RAN, an attempt to inject some competition into the sector by making it easier to combine different suppliers at the same mobile site. One thing the geopolitics and supply-chain chaos of recent years has done is show just how exposed telecom is to a few critical companies. Oligopolies are rife, and there is sometimes even less choice than that. A single Dutch company (ASML) provides the world's most advanced chipmaking tools. A single Taiwanese one (TSMC) makes most of the world's most advanced chips. Efforts to change any part of this surely deserve praise.

But the open RAN community has done a poor job of facing critics head-on. Parts of it have reacted to negative commentary like a petulant child rather than a serious grown-up willing to accept and respond to feedback. It overplays the victim card, often depicting Ericsson and Nokia as the enemy when open RAN is purportedly about cohabitation with rivals. It's sometimes more secretive than its name implies, too. Vodafone has been very upfront about its rollout in the UK. But Virgin Media O2 refused to say how many sites it will build when it announced its own plan last week.

Costly and Uncompetitive RAN

Above all, it has failed to convince the industry and investor community it is a fix for the big problems it originally identified. A bold claim made years ago was that an open and virtual RAN would cost far less to build than a traditional one. But data recently shared by EdgeQ – a chips start-up founded by Vinay Ravuri, a former Qualcomm executive – shows that common, off-the-shelf server equipment featuring Intel's Xeon-branded parts costs more than twice as much as equivalent proprietary kit supplied by Ericsson or Nokia (Intel chose not to comment).

Nor has open RAN overcome skepticism it will boost RAN competition. The rationale is that open interfaces aid specialists, previously excluded from deals because telcos were forced to buy everything from one big vendor. That part is accurate. What's doubtful is...

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