How open is OpenRAN?

Why is OpenRAN important and what is its likely impact on the silicon market?

While these are questions I often hear, it’s difficult to give a precise answer as there is still an amount of uncertainty over the details of OpenRAN and depending how the evolution progresses, the response will be tailored accordingly.

A truly open OpenRAN would indeed have extraordinary promise. However, a vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology based on open interfaces and community-developed standards is not a given. Certainly, openness on the hardware side of the equation is far from guaranteed.

That would not necessarily be an end to the matter. If software – and the interface software in particular – became totally open, that really would be a game-changer. Generic software would bring down costs significantly. The business model for 5G would be transformed, and 5G IoT in particular would undoubtedly benefit.

Think of the average household. How many devices were networked five or six years ago? Four or five perhaps? By contrast, today a home with 25 or more objects wirelessly linked or enabled – cameras, radios, virtual assistants, hi-fis, tablets, laptops – wouldn’t be a surprise.

Many of these rely on Wi-Fi. But a genuinely low-cost 5G enabled by truly open RAN protocols could become a credible alternative – and not only in the home. 5G support for IoT, made more cost-effective via OpenRAN – could turn some fairly fanciful scenarios into reasonable business models. It could mean, for example, that turning your own car into a hub would be a good investment.

And ubiquitous 5G – again enabled by non-proprietary software – could have a transforming effect on phone manufacture – and cost.

But will OpenRAN really be open? We won’t know for sure when the first iteration of 5G rolls out; it’s too early for OpenRAN to influence it. Much of the protocol and standards work is still being done.

But when 5G 2.0 appears, the usefulness of a truly open RAN will be clear – if that is actually what OpenRAN delivers. Hardware supply is still dominated by a few major names, and it’s hard to see that changing. There is, however, more optimism on the software front. We shall see.

As for semiconductors, new protocols and enhanced compute powers would be part of a number of changes that would almost certainly make many new – and appealing – demands on the semiconductor space – or they could, if OpenRAN’s promoters really mean what they say.

In reality, the concept of OpenRAN will be an evolving process and as things become more clear in subsequent iterations / generations of the protocol, it will become clear which players are active on specific architectures and what type of truly open access can be brought about in this space.