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In recent years, the introduction of 5G connectivity in the Middle East’s telecommunications market has thrived and local industries are increasingly looking to digitization to gain a competitive advantage in their operations. With this, the future of 5G network design has come under question as deliberations continue on open radio access networks (Open RAN), and what this model could mean for operators, telecom vendors, and end-users.

Several telecom operators in the GCC recently agreed to explore Open RAN’s potential in greater detail.  Theoretically, the Open RAN model enables a fundamental change in the way operators manage networks by calling for interoperability between the solutions offered by equipment vendors. In recent years, Open RAN has been explored and tested in international markets, with those learnings influencing its trajectory in the Middle East.

This poses a dilemma in how telecom operators should approach 5G implementation. Typically, networks are built with solutions and models that are in line with global standards frameworks, such as the GSMA’s Network Equipment Security Assurance Scheme. These standards influence the way networks are designed and deployed, setting a benchmark for operators as well as equipment makers.

While Open RAN is not a standard in itself, it is an implementation framework that would see network standards being tested. Industry analysts and global operators have recognized that there are inadequate defined standards or methodologies to guarantee that different vendors’ solutions will actually be interoperable in an Open RAN model. The limited representation of Chinese technology vendors within the Open RAN ecosystem, several of whom have been on the forefront of 5G research to date, may also pull the framework into geopolitical waters.

Another key consideration in this model is the matter of cost. Operators are investing heavily to expand and enhance their 5G networks. Open RAN has been put forward as a model that would drive greater competition amongst telecom equipment manufacturers. This competition would potentially lower the cost of network site equipment available to operators.

While this is yet to be seen, analysts have cited other areas where operators may incur costs under the Open RAN model. Managing a more complex 5G network made up of many different vendors’ solutions could prove more costly than using a single vendor—or a smaller list of vendors—who can take responsibility for network upkeep and maintenance. Even if operators can achieve savings in capital expenditures of their network sites, industry experts have estimated that the operating expenses of managing networks can often account for around 80% of the total cost of ownership, far outweighing the capital expenses.

The assessments of Open RAN to date suggest that there are opportunities as well as challenges related to effective competition, service compatibility, costs, and even security. It is only through further assessments that these questions may be resolved. 

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