Will open radio access network technology (O-RAN) disrupt the way 5G networks roll out in the country?
After all, it promises to offer a substantially lower capital cost, enables the choice of an array of vendors, and provides more network flexibility – all very important for telcos who expect to invest over Rs 60,000 crore to roll out a pan-India 5G network and that’s without spectrum costs.
But more importantly, it counters the stranglehold of global telecom gear makers such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung over telcos to whom they sell propriety technology and bundled hardware and software.
They dominate the Indian telecom market.
This domination has been accentuated by the government’s decision not to allow the aggressive Chinese companies (Huawei and ZTE) who have advanced technology and attractive pricing to participate in the country’s transition to 5G because of geo-political tensions.
Analysts say O-RAN was pushed by the US government as an alternative to weaken the domination of the Chinese in telecom gear when tensions grew between the two countries.
The Americans have been promoting it across the world, including in India.
But Strand Consulting, which keeps a close watch on O-RAN, points out that it is more hype than reality. Strand estimates that O-RAN will account for only 1 per cent of 5G mobile sites globally, going up to 3 per cent by 2030.
TechNexus says that, apart from Rakuten in Japan and Dish Networks in the US which have a large-scale deployment of 5G O-RAN, its deployment in 48 other networks up till June has been limited or has been on trial runs.
India is clearly one of the latter where all three telecom players are experimenting with O-RAN on 5G through trial runs. It is work in progress.
“Any disruptive technology takes time to mature and will have teething problems.
"But we believe it will scale up by 2023-24 when the big time 5G roll out will happen in India,” said the CTO of a leading telecom company.
He added that O-RAN is ‘serious business’, backed as it is by the global giants: Intel, Qualcomm, Amazon, Google, and Indian IT players like TCS and Tech Mahindra amongst others.
Telcos are in close collaboration with tech firms who are building the various components, hardware and software, of the O-RAN network as well as looking at integrators who will put the software and hardware together.
Airtel, for instance, has a comprehensive tie up with TCS which plans to roll out solutions based on O-RAN not only in India but also the export market.
This will include leveraging its system integration capability for its own 5G network. Trial runs have begun.
Apart from this, Airtel is working closely with US-based startup and O-RAN software company Mavenir (with whom Vodafone Idea also has an alliance) to test its software in the Punjab circle, with Red Hat for cloud software and with Taiwanese Sercomm for building small cells.
And for 5G chips which require a very high processing capacity to handle so much data, both Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have tied up with Intel and Qualcomm, both of whom also have a stake in Jio Platforms.
Jio has added a new dimension which is to design its own O-RAN technology in some areas either through its in-house R&D team or through US-based Radisys, which it bought over.
Jio also has ambitions to sell its technology solutions based on O-RAN to the global market.
Companies like NEC of Japan, which make massive MIMO radios, have set up an Open RAN lab in India to develop solutions on 5G and are in talks with telcos.
With O-RAN still under testing or trials runs in most cases, it is increasingly clear the initial contracts to roll out the 5G network in will be undertaken by incumbent global vendors.
The aim, said at least one top executive of a telco, is to eventually replace the Chinese share of network equipment with ORAN.
“Considering that Huawei and ZTE had around a 30 per cent share of the 4G network market, we expect this business will go to the ORAN ecosystem in collaboration with telcos and also through leveraging indigenous and in house technology which has been developed,” said the telco executive.
But global telecom gear makers in India say, off the record, that this scenario seems to be more of an aspiration rather than a reality.
They also say they are ready to incorporate some of the flexibility that O-RAN offers to ensure business.
As the top CTO mentioned earlier admitted, if O-RAN technology does not stabilise by 2025, it is game over.