A developing country like India is a perfect market for open RAN vendors. It allows service providers to enhance innovation and bring down the cost of network deployment and management, a crucial benefit in a cost-sensitive market like India.
Further, it promises to make it easier for Indian telecom vendors to create products. Besides, it may also play a crucial role in bringing down the digital divide by making it easier and more economical for the telcos to deploy networks in rural and remote areas.
Even so, the Indian telcos seem hesitant to take the big leap toward adopting open RAN. This is most obvious from the recent 5G deals announced. Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel have awarded 5G contracts to the traditional vendors, Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung. With all the deals going to traditional telecom vendors, open RAN is conspicuously missing from the 5G deals announced recently. Vodafone Idea is the only private telco and the only one yet to announce 5G vendors.
It was initially believed that the late deployment of 5G in India would help open RAN vendors to get crucial deals. India conducted 5G spectrum auctions earlier this year, and Jio and Airtel launched 5G services last month. Late deployment meant that it would give time for the open RAN technology to mature. Another factor that worked in favor of open RAN vendors was the absence of the Chinese vendors, Huawei and ZTE, from the 5G market in India. This meant that if the Indian telcos were looking for cheaper network equipment, open RAN products would emerge as suitable.
The top three Indian telcos, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, have conducted small open RAN projects. India’s largest service provider, Reliance Jio, is building a 5G network solution based on open RAN and has tested the solution in several cities.
In what Airtel describes as the first Indian vRAN 4G network deployment, it deployed Altiostar’s open virtual RAN software across its 4G network in several major cities. Further, the service provider partnered with Mavenir to conduct India’s first open RAN-based 5G network validation on the 3500 MHz frequency band in Chandigarh and Mohali in North India. Airtel is also a member of Facebook’s (now Meta) Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and, in fact, launched TIP’s Community Lab in India in 2017.
On the other hand, Vodafone Group was one of the first major global telcos to commit to open RAN, and in India, Vodafone Idea has deployed Mavenir’s open RAN solutions for 4G services.
Even though open RAN was not part of the initial 5G deals, the indications are that it still might end up being part of the Indian 5G networks. Media reports suggest that Airtel plans to deploy open RAN by the end of the financial year 2023 and is conducting another trial with Mavenir in North India. Further, as per media reports Jio intends to use open RAN to develop indigenous 5G stack which it plans to sell in global markets after deploying at scale in India.
A key reason why open RAN vendors didn’t make it to the initial list of 5G deals announced last month has to possibly do with the technology. In a recent interview with a prominent Indian publication, an NEC spokesperson said that the maturity level of the open RAN technology was the reason why Indian telcos were postponing the deployment of open RAN. Successful open RAN deployments until now include greenfield operators like Rakuten in Japan and Dish in the U.S. The absence of open RAN in brownfield networks is possibly a key reason for the Indian telcos to ignore open RAN.
While open RAN might not be part of the initial 5G deals in India, the indications are it will ultimately be adopted by Indian telcos, but it will be some years before it starts replacing the traditional networks.