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Efforts to create a more intelligent and flexible radio access network (RAN) architecture than is possible with today's largely proprietary solutions have been boosted by recent developments around open RAN.

They include the decision by Ericsson and Samsung to sign up to the O-RAN Alliance and the establishment by another open network initiative, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), of a working group focusing on 5G New Radio and co-chaired by Vodafone and Sprint. Meanwhile, the Japan-based e-commerce company Rakuten is to make a virtualized RAN a key feature of its planned greenfield mobile network.

None of these developments will reverse the current dependence on a largely proprietary RAN model that favors the incumbent vendors over their smaller challengers. No major vendor has yet committed to a fully open RAN model, nor has any incumbent operator announced plans to switch to an open RAN platform. However, they indicate a growing acceptance of open RAN principles that can, in time, lead to more far-reaching change.

The move to 5G and a more open, cloud-native network architecture is helping to accelerate that change. 5G requires a dynamic, software-based RAN platform that can respond more readily to the changing demands of users, applications, and businesses. Cloud-native networks, such as that being proposed by Rakuten, will help drive virtualization in the RAN.

The work of the O-RAN Alliance, driven by a group of forward-looking operators and suppliers including specialist RAN software companies, is designed to enact the open RAN vision. At Mobile World Congress 2019, the alliance staged demos on areas such as intelligent RAN control, open interfaces, and RAN virtualization.

Until last month, only Nokia from among the big three RAN vendors had signed up to either O-RAN or TIP. Samsung's announcement is perhaps the less surprising, given its challenger status in the RAN market, whereas Ericsson's decision represents a departure from its historically less enthusiastic stance on greater openness and interoperability.

Both vendors could be seen as responding to the accelerating move to a more virtualized RAN environment driven by 5G and to the broader push for open source platforms and a more diverse and interoperable RAN environment.

Rakuten has its sights on 5G, and as it is effectively a greenfield operator (having previously operated as an MVNO in its home market), it is well placed to incorporate open network practices as part of its end-to-end, cloud-native network rollout. Instrumental in its plans will be its RAN partners: Altiostar, a strong advocate of open RAN, and Nokia, probably the most "open" of the big three network equipment providers (NEPs) in RAN terms and the furthest advanced in its development of open interfaces.

Many incumbent operators are clearly already sympathetic to more openness, but it often takes a greenfield provider unencumbered by a legacy network to lead the way, as in the case of Rakuten and others such as Reliance Jio in India. Further progress on open RAN will depend on how much the incumbent vendors will be prepared to embrace the spirit of openness and how successful the network strategies of the likes of Rakuten prove to be.

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