Open radio access network, or O-RAN for short, is an approach to building and deploying wireless networks that promotes interoperability between hardware and software components from different vendors. While it has seen great enthusiasm from mobile network operators (MNOs) and enterprises alike due to its potential to lower costs, increase competition and promote innovation, to most, the technology has remained in a state of development for several years; enterprises have not yet gained the confidence they need to adopt it.
Why is O-RAN adoption delayed? How should enterprises think about O-RAN?
Technological and Business Drawbacks of O-RAN Technology
O-RAN is a promising technology that aims to promote greater interoperability and standardization in the telecom industry. However, there are also some potential technological and business drawbacks associated with it from multiple perspectives.
From the MNOs and enterprise perspective, the main challenges include:
- The lack of standardization across different vendors, which can lead to compatibility issues and increased complexity in network deployment and management. This can result in delays in the delivery of O-RAN networks as operators may need to spend more time testing and integrating different components from various vendors.
- The lack of skilled personnel who can design, deploy and manage O-RAN networks. Because O-RAN is a novel approach to building wireless networks, there is currently a shortage of experienced personnel who have the necessary skills and knowledge to implement O-RAN networks. This can result in delays in the delivery of O-RAN networks as operators may need to invest time and resources in training their personnel or hiring fresh staff with the required expertise.
- A lack of O-RAN-compatible hardware and software components. While there are several vendors offering O-RAN products and solutions, the ecosystem is still relatively new and fragmented, making it difficult for operators to find the right components to build their networks. This can also result in delays in the delivery of O-RAN networks, as operators may need to spend more time researching and evaluating different vendors and products.
Technological Challenges Associated with O-RAN
On the technological front, drawbacks associated with O-RAN include:
- Performance: One potential drawback of O-RAN is that it may not be able to match the performance of traditional, proprietary RAN solutions. This is because O-RAN is built on a software-defined architecture, which may not be optimized for specific hardware configurations.
- Complexity: O-RAN is a complex technology that requires extra expertise to design, deploy and manage. This can create challenges for operators who may not have the necessary skills or resources to implement O-RAN solutions.
- Integration: O-RAN solutions often require integration with other systems and technologies, such as cloud platforms and edge computing solutions. This can create challenges for operators who may not have experience integrating these systems and technologies.
- Security: O-RAN solutions may be more vulnerable to security threats, such as hacking and data breaches. This is because O-RAN relies on open-source software, which may be more susceptible to vulnerabilities than proprietary software as it is popularly believed. A recent security report released by the Australian government’s Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group suggests a 4% security gap between traditional deployments and O-RAN deployments. The gap was identified as related to the underlying virtualization technology, which is like traditional deployments.
- Interoperability: Although O-RAN aims to promote greater interoperability and standardization, there is still a risk that different vendors may implement the technology differently. This can create compatibility issues and reduce the benefits of O-RAN.
Of the above challenges, lack of standardization among vendors deserves special consideration given that the entire premise of O-RAN is the need for common standards. Some of the reasons for a lack of standardization among different telecom vendors include:
- Proprietary technologies: Many vendors have developed their own proprietary technologies and protocols, which they may be reluctant to share or integrate with other vendors' products. This creates silos and limits interoperability between different vendors' solutions.
- Fragmented market: The telecom market is highly fragmented, with many different vendors and players operating in different regions and segments. This also makes it difficult to establish common standards and drive adoption of interoperable solutions.
- Competitive pressures: Generally, vendors may see standardization as a threat to their competitive advantage, as it can make it easier for customers to switch between different vendors' products. This can create resistance to standardization efforts, particularly if vendors feel they have features or capabilities that differentiate them from their competitors.
- Complexity: Developing common standards and protocols can be complex and time-consuming, requiring collaboration between multiple stakeholders and technical experts. This can make it difficult to reach consensus and drive adoption of interoperable solutions.
Technological challenges such as interoperability, performance and reliability are inevitable in any modern technology. But while they can be difficult to overcome, these challenges are typically more straightforward to address than the possibility of major market players losing market share to new entrants.
Business Challenges Associated with O-RAN
The expansion of the market involves not only technological challenges but also economic, political and social ones. It has to do with the existing power dynamics and competitive landscape in the telecommunications industry. Market leaders (especially device vendors) often have concerns about promoting greater standardization and interoperability. They may be concerned about losing their competitive edge, for example, if they are forced to adopt common standards and interoperable solutions that are already in use by other vendors. Or they may be concerned about potential intellectual property issues if they are required to share proprietary technology with other vendors to achieve interoperability.
To overcome the lack of standardization among different vendors, several approaches can be taken:
- Establishing common standards: Industry organizations and standards bodies can work to establish common standards and specifications for various products and solutions. This can help ensure interoperability between different vendors' products and promote greater competition.
- Encouraging collaboration: Vendors can be encouraged to collaborate more closely with each other and with industry organizations to share knowledge and best practices. This can help drive standardization efforts and promote greater interoperability as well as provide concrete and cost-efficient targets for developing solutions.
- Open-source solutions: Open-source solutions can promote greater standardization by providing a common platform that multiple vendors can contribute to and benefit from. This can help drive innovation and promote greater competition.
- Providing incentives: Governments and regulatory bodies can provide incentives for vendors to adopt common standards and interoperable solutions. For example, they may offer tax breaks or subsidies to companies that adopt interoperable solutions or enforce regulations that require vendors to comply with common standards while, at the same time, enabling them to reap financial benefits of their intellectual properties.
Promoting greater standardization and interoperability will require collaboration between multiple stakeholders, including vendors, operators, hyper-scalers, industry organizations and regulatory bodies. By working together, it will be possible to promote greater innovation and competition in the telecom industry and foster its rapid adoption.
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