A new study by RAN Research predicts major growth in Open RAN adoption, focussing initially on small cell environments rather than micro and macro RAN deployments

2020 has seen communications technology become increasingly politicised, with the US wielding its diplomatic might to push countries away from using Chinese technology, which it deems to be a security threat. Naturally, this exclusionary tactic has left the door wide open for traditional RAN vendors, such as Nokia, Ericsson and increasingly Samsung, to fill the void left by Huawei and ZTE, but there is another group that is quickly gaining momentum: Open RAN vendors.

Open RAN, a concept which focusses on the disaggregation of RAN software and hardware on a vendor neural platform, has been gaining momentum quickly this year. It not only provides a very practical solution to the issue of ‘high-risk’ vendors, but also broadens the supplier ecosystem, offering telcos greater choice when building and upgrading their networks. As such, operators are increasingly taking notice of this emergent technology, with numerous big names joining programmes like the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the ORAN Alliance,
Now, the latest study from RAN Research, the wireless analysis wing of Rethink Technology Research, suggests that this interest is here to stay, with Open RAN set to steadily grow over the next six years. By 2026, the study expects Open RAN deployments to account for 58% of global RAN capex, which it totals at $32.3 billion, with the technology set to be deployed in 65% of all sites.
The study was based on a survey of 107 service providers, featuring 78 mobile network operators (MNOs) and 29 alternative deployers. Results showed that it was in fact these alternative deployers who were more likely to embrace Open RAN in these early stages; by 2023, 39% of these players are expecting to have fully adopted the new RAN technology, compared to just 17% of MNOs. In particular, the study small cell environments will see the greatest growth in Open RAN use.
“Most operators will introduce open interfaces initially to secondary or small cell networks, or to their fronthaul links only. Alternatively they will specify open RAN support in RFPs but choose a single vendor in the first instance at least,” explained Caroline Gabriel, the study author and research director at Rethink Technology Research.
One clear takeaway from the study is that, despite this year’s rapid growth and its accompanying hype, Open RAN’s growth will be a gradual process, not an overnight boom. Operators will be hesitant to shift their operations away from their tried-and-true, traditional RAN partners, especially on a large scale. 
Nonetheless, Rethink Technology Research’s report adds to a wealth of literature predicting big things for OpenRAN in the coming decade. Earlier this month, a study from ABI Research made even bolder predictions around the new technology, estimating that total investment would reach $47 billion by 2026. While the veracity of these claims remains to be seen, it us now undeniable that the  industry has serious expectations for this exciting technology. 
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