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BARCELONA, Spain—At last week’s Mobile World Congress 2023 (MWC23), Open RAN and private 5G were two of the biggest topics dictating cellular industry discussion. Technologists involved in hardware and software for telecoms were betting on Open RAN to grab a slice of the 5G market. At the same time, traditional infrastructure providers were not impressed, expressing their continued interest in the lucrative private wireless market.
On the consumer side, brands came to show their new devices, with big names like Samsung, Huawei, Honor, Oppo, Asus and others exhibiting new handsets, tablets, wearables and other connected devices. The new models, however, do not offer remarkable technology—rather, they offer novel, faster chipsets and higher-resolution cameras.
New Wi-Fi 7 (IEEE 802.11be) devices also appeared at the show, with companies like Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm, MediaTek, Asus, TP-Link, Xiaomi and many others already showcasing working access points and devices using the new standard.
Semiconductor and communication companies, however, came with a much bigger presence in MWC: Prominent vendors like Qualcomm, Samsung, Intel, AMD, Arm, Cisco and others had large pavilions to showcase their new offerings, trying to grab a piece of the fast-growing 5G wireless market.
Meanwhile, the big cellular infrastructure providers like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei were competing for the new standalone 5G networks’ hardware and services, selling directly to large industrial customers offering private LTE and 5G networks.
Open RAN opens competition in 5G hardware and software
Walking around at MWC23, especially in the halls dedicated to the component and semiconductor manufacturers, Open RAN and virtual RAN (vRAN) were everywhere. The new radio and open hardware interfaces’ programmability allows many new players to enter a market previously reserved for the big infrastructure providers.
Leading cellular infrastructure providers are not happy with the new competition, but they recognize that Open RAN is here to stay—but it will take some time for new players to become a real threat to their business.
Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence, offered his views on Open RAN and how it will impact the cellular industry in the future.
“I think Ericsson famously said [that] Open RAN will be a 6G thing, and you can look at that comment in two ways: One, they’re just trying to delay it, or two, they’re being pragmatic about how long it takes to rethink how we deliver networks,” he said in an interview with EE Times. “Open RAN is an integration exercise. And that’s a good thing for two reasons: One, it brings operators choice, and they benefit from that. But more philosophically, it also highlights that these networks are complex and there’s a lot of value. … My biggest concern with Open RAN is that, like so many things in the industry, people get very excited. And they expect that it’s going to take place tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, some of the same infrastructure providers are working with Open RAN suppliers to complement their equipment for large private wireless offerings.
Obviously, the ones most interested in Open RAN are telecoms—the cellular service providers (CSPs). Being able to mix and match equipment from different vendors creates more competition, lower capital expenditures and freedom of choice, according to Mohamed Awad, SVP and general manager of Infrastructure at Arm.
“I think the promise of Open RAN is a very real promise,” he said. “We’re working with many of the actual telco operators, specifically on Open RAN. One of the primary drivers for Open RAN is choice. It’s the idea of having choice and flexibility in the offering, and that’s really at the heart of what Arm has always been about. We’re working with almost all of the Open RAN partners that you could imagine, that we are engaged with in some way or another. I think the flip side of that is vRAN, which is sort of a precursor to Open RAN.”
Both Nokia and Ericsson are correct in arguing that Open RAN has a long way to go to become the norm in the cellular wireless industry, but vRAN is now being rapidly adopted by many operators—especially in new standalone 5G networks.
For many cloud service and virtualization providers, network programmability is the most exciting part of 5G. Before 5G, it was impossible to program network functions on the fly on behalf of the application.
“There is a big difference in the adoption of virtualized networks between groundfield and greenfield installations,” said Mariam Sorond, CTO of the Service Provider and Edge business unit at VMware. “Many CSPs are already running full network virtualization using VMware vRAN and SD-WAN, mostly on greenfield [new 5G deployments].”
The appeal of private cellular networks
For the past few years, CSPs have been behind in the rollout of private networks, allowing others to grab a significant market share.
Since the rollout of LTE IoT services, such as Cat-M and NB-IoT, Nokia, Ericsson and other players have been actively selling private cellular networks to different enterprises, especially for massive IoT deployments like industrial sensors and smart meters.
The arrival of 5G, with features such as low latency and network reliability, makes it very attractive for enterprises to deploy new critical IoT services and use the higher bandwidth to collect massive amounts of data for operational efficiency.
Additionally, standalone 5G offers the possibility of network slicing, dedicating specific parts to the network for critical and sensitive services. As network and asset security have become one of the most critical concerns for organizations, the possibility of isolating their internal connectivity is paramount.
Unfortunately, for many enterprises in different regions, CSPs must be ready to address the requirements of many industries. That’s why many organizations are turning to infrastructure providers and system integrators to help them deploy their private cellular networks.
“Nokia estimates that the private 5G market will grow faster than the rest of the market, which makes sense because it’s starting from a very small base,” GSMA’s Jarich said. “We see lots of interest in private networks. We’re seeing lots of great examples, whether it’s in manufacturing, whether it’s in ports, whether it’s in mines. Everyone has a bunch of great examples. What I think is most interesting about private networks is that it’s sort of like talking about 6G.”
Now, operators have taken notice and have begun teaming up with infrastructure network providers and other system integrators to reach this lucrative market.
Stephane Daeuble, head of Enterprise Solutions at Nokia, said during an interview with EE Times, “It is interesting because we spent a long time trying to tell [the operators], ‘Hey, this is a huge opportunity for you. They are often your customers already, you have the spectrum and you are in the telecom business.’ And the reactions were lukewarm for most of them, and a couple of them got it. But it’s also been a learning curve for them because they are not necessarily used to going to those markets. They mostly sell SIM cards and internet packages in the consumer market.”
As the industry is moving toward more industrial and corporate services with new features like 5G Advanced, Wi-Fi 7 and virtual and augmented reality, the demand for more bespoke network deployments will continue to grow. Now, many players are ready to grab a piece of the action, both on the infrastructure and software side.