At Mobile World Congress 2023, NEC affirmed its focus on 5G and its belief that open RAN is the technology to power it – in emerging markets as well as developed ones.
David Cohen, NEC’s Head of 5G Marketing, told us that the firm was focused on delivering 5G to Tier 1 operators, and that it considers open RAN the sole means of doing so. Cohen argued that the proof of concept is there, with NEC having been selected by several major players in more developed markets – including NTT and Rakuten in Japan - to deliver an end-to-end 5G solution that relies on open RAN. This grounding in developed markets allows the technology to mature and thereby improve – operators may wish to buy part of the solution, such as network consultancy or optimisation software.
He noted that as operators in emerging markets approach open RAN, they will need and indeed expect the technology’s vendors and integrators to be at the top of their game, and so it is important for open RAN suppliers such as NEC to focus on developed markets during the technology’s early stages. Cohen argued that as the technology becomes more widely adopted, it will become the de facto standard for 5G networks and so 6G upgrades will rely on it. While this may seem premature, Cohen cautioned that 5G is several years into the typical 10-year generational cycle.
NEC is committed to the concept of ‘openness’, ensuring via collaboration that its products integrate smoothly and reliably with those of its competitors. The vendor seems undeterred by some of the recent negativity surrounding open RAN, and acknowledges that there are issues around cost, but argues that it is working on all aspects of the practicalities of open RAN - such as complexity and energy efficiency – to ensure the benefits are realised.
There are plenty who still need convincing of the benefits of open RAN, and Cohen is happy to oblige, arguing that in six to seven years, the increase in network complexity will be offset by them having built-in intelligence and automation, making large portions of the network self-running. This will require the cloud-native apps that are being deployed today.
Ganesh Balasubramanian, VP of Global 5G Sales at NEC, adds that in emerging markets, the ecosystem itself is an advantage – these regions are under less geopolitical pressure to comply with the demands of developed nations, and consequently less pressure to avoid Chinese-made equipment. The acceleration curve in these regions is behind other markets, and indeed open RAN adoption has been slower than expected in many areas, but this is in part due to many carriers in developed regions adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, seeing how the technology is evolving and the complexities it is able to solve.
The difficulty is bringing open RAN into this ecosystem, but if it can be integrated in one place then this can be repeated. Balasubramanian notes that private use cases are a good start, offering higher profit margins which could offset the entry point for open RAN and therefore improve the business case both for open RAN and 5G in general. He notes that operators typically don’t consider using private data networks instead of consumer Wi-Fi, and notes that this approach could prove far superior, arguing that business cases must accommodate the initial CAPEX investment for open RAN, perhaps by segregating the network into different slices with segments dedicated to premium users.
While B2B applications are certainly the more obvious application, Balasubramanian considers this the low-hanging fruit, stating that it’s crucial to bring cellular connectivity in areas where this is not currently used – and that this must be high bandwidth connectivity with the ability to add services on top, as this makes it more affordable for operators to grow.