The most obvious way for a mobile operator to adopt open RAN is to buy radio units (RUs) from a different company than their baseband processing (DUs and CUs). Rakuten and Dish have now done this in greenfield networks, but major operators with urban legacy networks are not following along yet.
We do see some adoption of O-RU, O-DU, and O-CU hardware and software in rural networks, where cooperation with the legacy network is less critical. That’s a start, and the recent Mobile Experts forecast predicts migration of O-RU shipments from the rural areas to suburban and urban areas over the next five years.
But there’s another path that an operator can take in pursuit of ORAN. Instead of starting with mix-and-match radio hardware, the operators can implement a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) and start using xApps and rApps to manage the network in new ways.
A year ago, the ideas for xApps and rApps were interesting but most of them duplicated features that already existed in the legacy network (sleep mode, automating neighbor relations, etc). Now, the software vendors realize that adding value to 25 million legacy radios in the field can be an interesting opportunity.
At the same time, where the legacy OEMs have resisted the ORAN movement at a hardware level, in RIC software and applications the major OEMs are more willing to cooperate. They realize that their existing software is often optimized for specific urban environments and for the smartphone case, leaving room for new optimization for special situations.
In this way, we might not see Open RU hardware in a major New York base station anytime soon, but as the C-band network is deployed with Virtual RAN, the cloud-native platform will be in place to allow for continuous and simultaneous optimization in multiple different ways. In 2026, we expect to see more than $5 billion invested in ORAN software, but only $3 billion or so spent on O-RU hardware.
It’s time to re-think the path to open RAN. Most operators won’t start with radio hardware… instead they may start by using ORAN-compatible software on a platform developed by their legacy OEM. Keep an eye on C-band deployments using vRAN, as they offer a great opportunity for new vendors to add value in the mainstream market.
Joe Madden is principal analyst at Mobile Experts, a network of market and technology experts that analyze wireless markets.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.