There’s nothing like kicking off a trade show with the latest big debate front and center.

“Open RAN: The Debate” will take the stage – Stage A in Hall 6, to be precise – at 4:15 p.m. on Monday, February 27, during MWC Barcelona. Speakers from Rakuten Symphony, Red Hat, Deutsche Telekom, VMware, Mavenir and Sonic Labs will weigh in.  

The session, moderated by GSMA Intelligence, promises to cover questions like whether disaggregation of the network can really work for the majority of operators and whether widespread adoption is even achievable.

So far, much of the success of open RAN has been tied to greenfield operators, like Dish Network in the U.S., but some long established European operators are determined to make it work. Back in 2021, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) committing to work with industry players to make open RAN the technology of choice for future mobile networks.

This week, those same operators provided an update on the progress made thus far and key areas of focus in 2023, including the development of open RAN technologies for wider deployment in highly populated towns and cities.

Leading up to MWC, companies like Mavenir and Cohere Technologies released a steady stream of PR around open RAN. Cohere Chairman and CEO Ray Dolan will be on the keynote stage with Jim Taiclet, chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, presenting “Going Hypersonic – Accelerating Secure Wireless to the Edge” at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, February 28.

Ronny Haraldsvik, CMO and SVP Business Development at Cohere Technologies, said open RAN will differentiate itself from legacy RAN solutions when new innovations are enabled, or, in other words, when it allows operators to do things otherwise not possible in a closed, proprietary RAN.

The Open RAN Alliance, which is holding an industry event at the Deutsche Telekom booth on Tuesday afternoon, intends to keep the buzz going at sessions and booths throughout the week, with at least 65 demonstrations planned.

Look out for the RICs

Ed Gubbins, principal analyst at GlobalData, told Fierce that he doesn’t think there’s going to be a major change in the state of open RAN at this year’s MWC. The major headwinds in the space that the industry has been talking about for a while – the maturity and breadth of the ecosystem, the challenges of system integration and so on –aren’t changing dramatically this year, he said.

One area within open RAN where the industry is likely to see an uptick in the level of discourse is the topic of RAN Intelligent Controllers, or RICs, which you need to manage the complexity of disaggregated networks but which can also unlock some of the promise of open RAN in terms of innovation from third-party application developers, he said.

Activity in this area has been ramping up in the weeks before MWC, he noted. Mavenir launched near- and non-real-time RICs a couple weeks before the show. NEC announced the successful demonstration of its RIC at a plugfest in Japan.

And even beyond the usual open RAN torch-bearers, some big tech firms are pursuing opportunities in this area, he noted. “Last year it was folks like Juniper and VMWare. More recently, Microsoft, for example, has been talking about using Microsoft Edge platforms that are running vRAN to harness network analytics that RICs can then use to optimize the network,” he said. “So I think we’re going to see increased activity from players in the telecom cloud ecosystem that could help build some momentum.”

vRAN, without a doubt 

In addition, with or without the “open” part, he expects a fair amount of talk about the virtual RAN aspects of open RAN.

The two topics are intertwined, of course, but virtual RAN doesn’t have all the same hurdles toward advancement that open RAN has in terms of requiring a broad, diverse ecosystem, he pointed out.

For vRAN, the hurdles are more about increasing the performance and power efficiency of the technology, he said. “So this year we’re going to see Intel’s new vRAN system-on-a-chip with an integrated accelerator, and I think we’re going to see more players and more moves aimed at trying to either tackle the performance issues in different ways or capture opportunities that arise as the performance improves,” he said, adding that some of that could be aimed at capturing private wireless opportunities with the enterprise market in addition to public networks.

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