Most open RAN launches planned for 2022 are still in progress but lots of vRAN deployments have gone live. In this update of the Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, STL Partners investigates whether vRAN is a viable alternative to open RAN in its purest form that is good enough for most operators today.
In this update, STL Partners presents data and analysis on progress with deployments of vRAN and open RAN. It is fair to say that open RAN (virtualised AND disaggregated RAN) deployments have not happened at the pace that STL Partners and many others had forecast. In parallel, some very significant deployments and developments are occurring with vRAN (virtualised NOT disaggregated RAN). Is open RAN a networking ideal that is not yet, or never will be, deployed in its purest form?
Is vRAN good enough for now?
In its Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, STL tracked deployments of three types of virtualised RAN:
- Open RAN / O-RAN: Open, disaggregated, virtualised / cloud-native, with baseband (BU) functions distributed between a Central Unit (CU: control plane functions) and Distributed Unit (DU: data plane functions).
- vRAN: Virtualised and distributed CU/DU, with open interfaces but implemented as an integrated, single-vendor platform.
- Cloud RAN (C-RAN): Single-vendor, virtualised / centralised BU, or CU only, with proprietary / closed interfaces.
Cloud RAN is the most limited form of virtualised RAN: it is based on porting part or all of the functionality of the legacy, appliance-based BU into a Virtual Machine (VM). vRAN and open RAN are much more significant, in both technology and business-model terms, breaking open all parts of the RAN to more competition and opportunities for innovation. They are also cloud-native functions (CNFs) rather than VM-based.
2022 was meant to be the breakthrough year for open RAN: what happened?
- Of the eight deployments of open RAN we were expecting to go live in 2022 (shown in the chart below), only three had done so by the time of writing.
- Two of these were on the same network: Altiostar and Mavenir RAN platforms at DISH. The other was a converged Parallel Wireless 2G / 3G RAN deployment for Orange Central African Republic.
- This is hardly the wave of 5G open RAN, macro-network roll-outs that the likes of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone originally committed to for 2022. What has gone wrong?
- Open RAN has come up against a number of thorny technological and operational challenges, which are well-known to open RAN watchers:
- integration challenges and costs
- hardware performance and optimisation
- immature ecosystem and unclear lines of accountability when things go wrong
- unproven at scale, and absence of economies of scale
- energy efficiency shortcomings
- need to transform the operating model and processes
- pressured 5G deployment and Huawei replacement timelines
- absence of mature, open, horizontal telco cloud platforms supporting CNFs.
- Over and above these factors, open RAN is arguably not essential for most of the 5G use cases it was expected to support.
- This can be gauged by looking at some of the many open RAN trials that have not yet resulted in commercial deployments.