The telecoms industry is meeting the challenges posed by ever faster network speeds and widespread connectivity by opening the radio access network (RAN). It is expected to confront concerns over a network supply chain that is under-competitive, proprietary and subject to geopolitical pressures.

Open RAN architecture also brings efficiencies and cost reductions by decoupling hardware and software. This enables service providers to adopt cloud-native computing, allowing the exploitation of the wealth of data from the RAN with AI-powered analytics tools as well as reducing power consumption. This both controls costs and helps towards carbon neutrality targets.
There are many players and many interests at stake, and no clear view of how it might turn out. But if history is anything to go by, opening the RAN may not go the way we expect. The telecoms sector has seen ‘open’ revolutions come and go, and they tend to result in new technologies that vendors use to lock in their customers even more tightly.
Complicating things further is the fact that while operators want openness, they don’t want openness to the point of creating a chaotic, disorderly market. Telecoms networks are complex enough as it is, and there’s a real fear that Open RAN could result in even more complexity as well as lock-in to systems integrators (SI) or cloud platforms.
Well specified Open RAN architecture variant
But it doesn’t have to be that way – and the solution lies in focusing on using a well specified Open RAN variant, known as O-RAN, to build intelligent control into the RAN. The RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) plays a crucial role in transforming the network and empowering operators to create and monetise distinctive service propositions. In other words, it’s the RIC that can unlock the true value of the ‘open’ proposition of O-RAN, as our latest whitepaper examines in more depth.
O-RAN heralds a paradigm shift that goes well beyond the actual RAN technology and the open architecture. It introduces a new and more innovative supply route into the telecoms ecosystem as 5G takes hold (including the private network opportunity).
While O-RAN architecture is faced with the challenge of meeting the baseline requirements of cellular technology and offering a solution that performs as well, or better than, existing integrated solutions at a competitive cost, it has to offer value beyond the usual performance metrics to tackle the challenges of new applications, sustainability and more. And it has to do all of that without becoming a new iteration of the same vendor lock-in problem.
The RIC is the key that provides a unique opportunity for O-RAN to achieve these ambitions. It enables increased levels of innovation, simplifies the entry of a large number of small innovative specialist vendors and reduces the possibility of simply being locked into a new supplier. The RIC can achieve this via the application of improved analytics to the wide range of data generated by networks.
High level functionality will migrate to RIC
Meanwhile, basic O-RAN 5G functionality will quickly become commoditised, which means the value and the higher level functionality will migrate to the RIC. As a focal point for data analytics, the RIC will be able to make the most of new technology areas such as AI/ML in order to extract the most value from network telemetry and other data available to it.
But again, it’s not just a tech issue. The transition from a traditional vertically integrated RAN ecosystem to an open O-RAN ecosystem will be (and indeed must be) accompanied by a transition from a siloed, single development organization to an agile DevOps ecosystem in which vendors can specialise on specific parts of the overall solution.
App developers will aim to maximise their addressable market – and thus their ability to gain operational experience – by working with several platform vendors to create a vibrant app marketplace. Meanwhile, platform vendors will have to cultivate ecosystems of app developers to provide them with innovative functionality.
That’s a tall order – most disruptive paradigm shifts are. That means service providers are unlikely to let go of the rigid processes for product introduction that they have built up over the years. Service providers understand that in order to encourage a more dynamic DevOps culture they may have to trade-off lower service reliability, at least in the short term. On the other hand, if service providers do not release their reassuringly tight grip, O-RAN architecture may not take off.
Something has to give because the status quo is unsustainable. With the right strategy and a little nerve, service providers have the opportunity to evolve with the times into something much different from today’s operators. The networks of tomorrow may well be widely distributed networks of small edge data centre with a constantly evolving software platform extending and improving network performance and QoE. And it all starts with the RIC. Get the full story of how it can unlock the true value of O-RAN in our whitepaper now – and do contact me if you’d like to discuss the topic in more detail.
About the author
Dr. Derek Long is Head of Telecommunications at Cambridge Consultants. Derek leads the company’s collaboration within the sector and helps create breakthrough innovations that transform the delivery of high-performance communication – for mobile carriers and ISPs to vendors and component manufacturers. With over 20 years’ experience in mobile technology, Derek has held a range of senior management roles with multinationals and has a wealth of expertise across all generations of mobile and broadband technology, including LTE-A and 5G. Derek holds a PhD in telecommunications from the University of Bristol.