The emerging dilemma in reaping long-term value of 5G networks
The Kingdom is on a path of rapid digitization that promises immense benefits for industry and society alike. The country is already pursuing advanced applications of cloud, AI, and other technologies to enhance economic output and help realize the ambitions of Vision 2030. These cutting-edge applications depend on a robust network infrastructure, which today is realized with 5G connectivity.
However, the telecommunications industry is now facing a dilemma in how they approach 5G implementation. The standards and methods used in deploying 5G infrastructure greatly influence the long-term value created by this technology. In particular, a methodology known as Open RAN (open radio access networks) has become a hot topic in the region as well as globally, seeking to support interoperation between different vendors’ 5G equipment. Decisions now being made around this methodology could therefore accelerate—or hinder—the development of Saudi’s digital economy.
The current dilemma starts with a recognition that the progress on 5G would have been near impossible without global collaboration and industry standards. Standardization of 5G started in early 2016 under the umbrella of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). 3GPP still plays a critical role in developing and maintaining global technical specifications to ensure that network equipment and handset manufacturers develop interoperable products all over the world. To keep innovating in Saudi Arabia, the ICT sector is continuing to work within such frameworks and build on these early advances.
Outside of this consensus, certain organizations and countries have now attempted to set new “implementation” frameworks for 5G. The latest and perhaps most debated of these currently is Open RAN. This is not an alternative 5G standard, but rather an implementation method that relates to 5G infrastructure—particularly 5G base stations. At its core, it is a methodology that seeks to replace some existing 5G hardware with more open systems. These would theoretically enable the mixing and matching of 5G equipment from different vendors. The early hope was that this approach could also reduce network costs by attracting competing equipment from more vendors.
However, the topic of Open RAN has become heated, with many individuals and organizations now questioning its initial promises. This is important as government regulators and telecom operators—both in Saudi Arabia and beyond—continue to examine the best methods for deploying 5G to generate maximum long-term value. The core issue is that arguments so far for Open RAN have largely proved to be based on expectations rather than market or technological realities, particularly in the 5G era.
The first concern is that there are no well-defined standards or testing methodologies to guarantee interoperability and performance of 5G networks based on this “open” architecture. This makes integration difficult to achieve. Some of the early adopters of Open RAN have failed to scale the model beyond sparsely populated areas.
Lowering capital expenses for telecom operators was also a primary driver for Open RAN. However, looking at how network operators spend money shows that their main cost center is operating expenses, not the capital expenses that Open RAN’s value proposition is built upon for base stations. Estimates are that the expenses associated with Open RAN are only about 12% of per-site capital expenses. Neville Ray, US president of technology at T-Mobile, is just one example of a global executive who has raised doubts about the maturity of Open RAN systems and their ability to deliver promised cost savings. He has argued that key questions around system integration and R&D have yet to be answered.
Additionally, there is a question of potential security risks that could cause real harm. Open architectures that depend on multiple equipment providers, which then need to be patched together, can lack a clear reference point in the unfortunate event of a breach or network failure. It is not impossible, but is an important consideration for something as vital as 5G base stations. In developed markets like Germany, for example, its Federal Office for Information Security weighed into the Open RAN debate at the end of 2021 questioning the resiliency of networks based on the concept. It concluded that a mash-up of products from different suppliers is risky business.
In the end, what happens with concepts like Open RAN and other 5G implementation methods is vital to the future of the sector and Saudi Arabia’s digital society. Rather than risk splintering the 5G industry into factions, today’s technology leaders may benefit from a deeper examination of the long-term social and economic impact of such approaches.