22 Mar 2021

Telecom Infra Project: Driving diversification through disaggregation

While consumers have dozens of operators to choose from, and hundreds of devices with which to connect, the underlying mobile networks have been built by an ever-shrinking pool of vendors. In 2019, just three companies supplied 80% of the market globally for the radio access network (RAN), the most visible part of mobile networks. For the UK, once the Telecom Security Bill becomes law later this year, it may become just two.

Open RAN: Diversification through Disaggregation

Mobile network operators, tech firms and chipset manufacturers have been - in relative obscurity from policymakers - driving forward a new concept: disaggregation. Today, mobile network operators largely procure end-to-end solutions. This contributes to a situation where upgrade cycles are longer than necessary, with customers - and economies - waiting years for world-class connectivity. This is particularly true for rural communities.

The members of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are pushing forward a new approach: disaggregating the components of the mobile network, with the radio access network as the highest-profile target. This approach brings key benefits to the industry:

  • A less fragile and more flexible network supply chain, reducing disruption risks for service providers, and creating incentives for investment in connectivity improvements
  • More innovation in network functionalities, as a growing community of innovators can use open interfaces to create new products that enhance network performance and make it possible to address current challenges for connectivity
  • An improved business case for connectivity, through reductions in the total cost of ownership or by enabling new revenue streams for service providers, on top of basic connectivity 

UK Potential in Open RAN 

UK companies are taking a lead in Open RAN deployment already. Vodafone has launched trials in the UK, Ireland, Mozambique and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Telefonica has launched trials in the UK for 4G and 5G Open RAN, as well as Spain and Brazil, and has recently announced a trial with NEC. 
 
The government’s announcement of £250 million is already encouraging potential vendors to test the waters in the UK through the UK 5G Testbeds and Trials fund, and look with interest at the establishment of future initiatives.  
 
To continue to foster this momentum, the government should: 

  • Give MNOs a leading role: The UK MNOs - and their parent groups - should be able to send clear demand signals on Open RAN. This requires some convergence on their common requirements. This will happen naturally but government should aim to accelerate this with the MNOs and make it transparent to emerging vendors. 
  • Think globally: With a strong tech base, leading MNOs and strong policy incentives, the government can shape the world market. But to be globally relevant, it should ensure its early-mover advantage is exercised in global bodies such as TIP, the O-RAN Alliance and 3GPP. 
  • Maintain ambition: The UK is being joined by countries as diverse as Indonesia, the US, and Germany in looking for ways to establish leadership in Open RAN. Some are bringing significant funding with them - Germany is considering a fund for future networks and the European Commission exploring ways to support through COVID-19 recovery funding.

Capitalising on an Industry Trend 

The UK could be on the cusp of ushering in a new wave of telecom vendors as it invests in the Telecom Diversification Strategy. With government support to accelerate Open RAN, we can create a plethora of interoperable components, each representing its own market and each able to be swapped out to respond to technological progress or address security concerns. 


By Attilio Zani, Executive Director - Telecom Infra Project. TIP is transforming the way networks are built and deployed – promoting disaggregation and interoperability to drive telecoms diversification and fuel greater connectivity 

 

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