Some of Europe’s biggest telcos have outlined their goals for the progression of Open RAN technology this year and beyond, including a suggestion of commercial launches in the near future.

Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone have together identified three key areas of focus for Open RAN in 2023. Firstly, they are looking at the technology’s growing maturity, and what that means for further rollout, but are also working on security and energy efficiency. The five telcos created their Open RAN club two years ago with a view to having an input into the development of the technology; essentially, it’s mainly about involvement in the creation of standards, but there’s also an R&D element and development of the Open RAN ecosystem.

Under the heading of maturity, in their newly-published white paper, the operators note that the technology gap between traditional radio access networks and Open RAN is closing, highlighting highly visible deployments in North America and in the UK, backed by government support.

One of the group, Vodafone, is at the forefront of the UK rollout, having deployed a number of sites around the UK, including a fairly recent urban installation, but the group did not refer to it by name. However, the use of Open RAN in more densely populated areas is on the telcos’ radar for the coming year.

“A key focus in 2023 will be around maturity of 5G for urban areas and minimizing system integration overheads by maturing certification delivered through industry communities,” they said. The latter half of that slightly oddly worded statement clearly shows they are keen to see a workable certification process for Open RAN kit emerge sooner rather than later, which makes sense.

On the subject of further deployments, the group’s over-arching message is that we’re essentially looking at 2025 for real commercial launches in mainland Europe, although some operators are clearly further ahead than others.

“Open RAN has matured over the last months and our initial commercial deployment will start soon,” said Abdu Mudesir, Group CTO Deutsche Telekom. He did not share any dates or timeframes, but “soon” suggests we will not have to wait for two more years.

“The significant progress made recently by the Open RAN industry has given us the assurance that open and cloud-native RAN is now geared up for first commercial deployments in brownfield networks within Europe from 2023 onwards,” added Michaël Trabbia, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Orange.

“In the long run, we also have a clear path set up with an efficient framework to ease the integration burden, opening the door for deployments at scale,” he said. “Eventually, we expect Open RAN to even outperform traditional RAN, allowing us to reap the benefits of fully automated and intelligent networks.”

It seems safe to bet that we will hear a lot more from the operators that make up this Open RAN group, particularly the two highlighted above, over the course of this year. But we probably shouldn’t expect any massive deployments for another year or so.

In the meantime, the telcos have plenty of work to do in the other areas they outlined, namely security and energy-efficiency. When it comes to the former, cooperation with national authorities and others will be key. The telcos noted that they have formally requested the inclusion of Open RAN in the GSMA security assurance scheme (NESAS) and the 5G certification scheme defined by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA).

They also outlined three pledges on security, the first being to apply all the mandatory controls defined by the O-RAN Alliance and 3GPP security specifications themselves and throughout the supply chain. They will also continue following a zero trust approach to vendors, ensuring the various established standards and specifications are met, along with national authority requirements, and making sure that vendor risk profiles are correctly captured and assessed during upcoming procurement processes. Finally, they are committed to addressing outstanding gaps in security specifications through the O-RAN Alliance; specifications for new security control mechanisms for certain interfaces were completed in November and will be published this month, they noted.

On energy-efficiency, it’s all about radio transmitters and cloud infrastructure this year. Like in traditional mobile networks, Open RAN radio units consume the most power and at present are about as energy-efficient as traditional RAN transmitters. However, the operators said they expect this to improve with the use of dynamic sleep mode, which powers up base station kit based on actual traffic needs. Meanwhile, the energy-efficiency of cloud infrastructure is improving due to advancements in CPU and accelerator technologies, and in cooling systems.

“Maturity, security and energy efficiency are becoming increasingly important as the technology enters a new phase in its development, and throughout 2022, the companies have encouraged open discussions around these topics,” the operators said.

“With global deployments now reaching tens of thousands of sites (mainly executed by new operators in greenfield deployments), Open RAN is closing the gap with traditional mobile radio networks in terms of feature parity and performance, and further pilots are planned this year, leading to full-scale deployments across Europe in 2025,” they predicted. But there will be plenty of noise around Open RAN in Europe in the coming months and beyond too.

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