The debate over open radio access network (RAN) – and what really constitutes open RAN – proved that it’s alive and well after BT detailed plans of an open RAN trial with Nokia in the U.K.

The announcement a week ago appeared run-of-the-mill on the surface but clearly rankled some who aired their complaints on social media. Some suggested it’s more like “pseudo-RAN.” Another asked: Is RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) alone enough to constitute open RAN?

One of the voices is that of John Baker, SVP at open RAN pioneer Mavenir. Baker told Fierce that the invitation consistently has gone out for Nokia to show interworking with other vendors, but so far, Nokia hasn’t accepted the invite.

One of the basic ideas behind open networking is the ability to mix and match products from different vendors, with the goal being that it will all work – something that historically hasn’t been the case inside wireless networks.

Since Nokia hasn’t demonstrated the ability for products to work with other vendors, the assumption is it’s using some degree of proprietary technology. “It’s their interpretation of the specifications,” Baker said. “We balk every time Nokia says something about open RAN. Same with Ericsson.”

BT’s announcement with Nokia last week talked about BT’s “ongoing commitment to the development and deployment of open RAN technology.” BT shared some details about the trial with Nokia in the city of Hull, U.K. BT said it will install Nokia’s RAN RIC for open RAN across a number of sites to optimize network performance for customers of its EE mobile network.

Asked if RIC alone is enough to call it open RAN, a Nokia spokesperson said RIC was developed through the O-RAN Alliance specification and is part of O-RAN architecture. “For O-RAN customer deployments we supply a combination of RIC and Open fronthaul as required. In this use case, RIC alone was what was needed,” the spokesperson said.

What defines open RAN – is it the Open RAN Alliance specifications? How are we supposed to know when something is truly open RAN and when it’s not? “The O-RAN Alliance specifications offers the most universally accepted definition of open RAN,” the Nokia spokesperson said.

Giving operators the ability to use products from different vendors presumably leads to better costs for the operators – and offers them more control over the products they use (compared to a vendor lock-in scenario) and presumably leads to more competitive offerings.  

According to Strand Consult, the RAN market is a small one. In practice, “even the most optimistic savings from open RAN will not meaningfully affect the mobile operator’s earnings,” said CEO John Strand. His firm recently published the report, “Debunking 27 Myths of OpenRAN.”

Put another way: If open RAN is 40% cheaper than classic RAN and operators would pass along these savings to consumers, then the average mobile bill in the U.S. would decrease by 0.4 – 1.2%. That translates into a savings of a maximum 30 cents per month per subscriber, according to Strand.

Strand’s projections for the open RAN market are nowhere near that of DellO’ro Group, which estimates open RAN revenues will account for more than 10% of the overall RAN market by 2025.

Strand Consult believes that open RAN will struggle with market share, barely reaching 3% of the installed 5G sites by 2030. “The important number is not the market share in five years, the important number is percentage of the installed 5G sites by 2030,” Strand said.

Strand noted that it’s one thing for an operator to conduct trials and tests of open RAN. “It is quite another for the operator to purchase the equipment,” he said, noting that to fuel the hype, some stories have suggested that a trial of open RAN equipment was a purchase.

Interestingly, Strand looked at the number of contributions of technical specifications that were made to O-RAN Alliance. According to Strand, 5,044 contributions were made to the O-RAN Alliance in 2020. Ericsson and Nokia made 1,000 in total, with others as follows: Parallel Wireless with 4; Dell, 2; Mavenir, 75. China Mobile made 397. In the first half of 2021, Dell made 1 contribution; Parallel Wireless, 5; Mavenir, 47; Nokia and Ericsson, 1,100 total, for a grand total of 5,800 contributions, according to Strand.

In the U.S., Dish Network has been a big proponent of open RAN, albeit in a greenfield state. In a meeting with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel last month, Mavenir CEO Pardeep Kohli and others pointed out that new spectrum bands, like C-band, are an opportunity for brownfield operators to introduce open RAN vendors by eliminating proprietary interfaces.

Notably, Mavenir says it’s not seeking a technology mandate from the U.S. government for open RAN but wants an open interface policy that allows carriers to choose the “best of breed and mix and match vendors,” akin to allowing users to download any browser of their choosing to use the internet.

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