Is OpenRAN a reset for the GSM MoU?

Open RAN networks and technology continue to capture attention across telecoms industry. What is it about the technology that is whipping up the storm?

Guest author

January 17, 2022

5 Min Read
now open sign neon periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this pieceJohn Baker, SVP of Business Development at Mavenir looks at what it is about OpenRAN technology that is whipping up the storm in the industry and even in politics.

GSM technology and its supporting ecosystem were conceived within a committee meeting in Paris and developed in the laboratories of the European Telecoms Standards Institute.  Originally motivated to create a European standard that could deliver a seamless mobile network across European countries, the GSM standard rose to dominate world communications.

That domination came about because of economies of scale. That scale was achieved by the creation of the GSM MoU – the memorandum of understanding.  To kick-start the revolution, operators signed the MoU and agreed to build their networks using the same new, open, technology and to co-operate with other signatories to create a ‘pan-European’ network.

With operators committing to the buy and deploy the new open standard, the infrastructure and handset vendor communities could have confidence a vast market existed. Competition on this level playing field, coupled with those vastly improved economies of scale, served to fuel the global mobile revolution.

The MoU opened an era of technological innovation, the like of which had never been seen before, and the principle quickly went global. Our modern world of seamless, palm of your hand, innovation, information and entertainment is a direct descendent of the MoU.

But something changed in the intervening years – and maybe we should have seen it coming. While the guiding principle that all the handsets work across all the networks has remained in place and effective, some of the interpretations of the underlying network technology evolved, and that has served not to open the market for all, but to close it to the competition.

In particular, operators have found that certain proprietary interfaces have been created that have led to incompatibilities between network elements from different vendors. It’s like having a Dell laptop that only accepts Dell software. The effect has been to almost lock-in the incumbent vendor and make it more difficult for the operator to mix and match across all the potential suppliers.

I believe these proprietary interfaces have served to restrict innovation and placed a brake on the collaboration and co-operation that fuelled the global market. However, two key developments could now signal a return to that open and collaborative ethos that served so effectively to change the world.  The first of these is inevitably 5G.

While other iterations of the GSM standard have largely been concerned with improving speed and capacity to meet the growth in demand for data communications, the next generation, 5G, is as much about capability as it is about capacity.  A 5G network is a software-led network that demands we innovate to unleash its true potential. And I also believe it demands that we don’t do that alone – we need market specific partners.

The second development that can stimulate this new era of network and service innovation and greater collaboration between vendors is Open RAN. If a 5G network is software-led, then it demands a software-led approach to network technology. And if it is to fulfil the same promise as the original GSM dream, it demands an open and collaborative approach rather than one which is closed and proprietary.

An Open RAN approach to network technology effectively removes barriers to entry for smaller innovative market specific suppliers, stimulates competition, and breaks up the dominance of the two or three incumbent vendors who have tried, through self-interest, to slow the progress to a more open standards approach.

Open RAN reverses the prevailing dynamic that has created a closed-shop mentality when it comes to network innovation.  The advent of cloud-native, Open RAN networks represent, in many ways, the chance to recapture the spirit of those pioneering days when mobile technology was taking the world by storm.  These networks can encourage and attract new players, disrupt the market, and put an end to the cosy but unhealthy reliance on too few suppliers.

By embracing and adopting an open approach to network technology, the service and the technology providers have the chance to return to the principles of the GSM MoU which created the environment for so many operators and so many vendors to grow and prosper.  And if you wanted a sign that the operators recognise this requirement – then look no further than, yes, the MoU that the big European operators signed last year to show the scale of their interest in deploying Open RAN technology.

A software-led network era demands a software-led technology solution. Open RAN is the ideal technology for the 5G era and can breathe new life into 4G networks as well.  It can be a hothouse for technology innovation and change the fundamentals of network economics. We must not let it be held back by self-interest and inertia. Those operators and vendors who choose to ignore Open RAN stand to miss out on the innovation and the global opportunity. And that goes against all the principles that enabled GSM to fly in the first place.


Headshot-John-Baker-150x150.jpgJohn Baker is the Senior Vice President of Business Development at Mavenir. A veteran of the mobile industry, and board member for 5G Americas, John Baker leads the 5G team at Mavenir, intent on disrupting the market by transforming operator network economics. John is at the forefront of the company’s drive to change operator views on wireless infrastructure deployment—promoting a software-focused approach to innovation, with no ties to supporting legacy hardware. Prior to joining Mavenir, John held senior positions with leading wireless companies including Spirent, Commscope, Nokia and Pacific Bell.  He contributed significantly to the development of the GSM standards and graduated with an Honors Degree in Electrical Electronic Engineering from Loughborough University in Leicestershire, UK.

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