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A spirit of openness towards RAN will ultimately unlock the potential of 5G

(Image credit: / Who Is Danny)

It’s been 22 years since ESPN did the first live video streaming event. Digital technology has since transformed the way we live and networks can now support inordinate applications and services. 

The number of applications riding on wireless networks keeps rising and we estimate that by 2023:

  •  The number of connected devices will be 3 times the global population 
  •  M2M will account for 50 percent of global connected devices and connections 
  •  Over 70 percent of the world’s population will have mobile connectivity and 100 percent by 2030 

Legacy telecom infrastructure, however, remains monolithic and vendor dependent. Networks are largely operating on tightly integrated proprietary software and hardware, and are primarily hardware-centric with software driving specific applications. Traditionally, telecoms companies have struggled with constrained vendor choice along with high CapEx and OpEx and limited flexibility. They are trying to solve for scale and bandwidth and it is proving to be expensive.

In addition, increasing traffic, mounting network complexity and the sheer number of new devices has resulted in a problem that simply cannot be solved with existing architectures.  There is a need for a new network architecture, and this is evolving with four fundamental technology shifts that have become more prominent over the past year.

  • Edge – 2020 saw a focus on bringing the power of the entire cloud to the edge of the network i.e. closer to the user for faster response times and better experiences. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 75 percent of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed at the edge – as against 10 percent in 2018.
  • Converged – Last year saw unprecedented convergence of wireless access and wired networks. This will enable improve experiences even for mobile users. 
  • Compute – Rather than just being carriers of data, networks are becoming intelligent now. They are powered by processors, storage and memory devices that allow them to act as an extension to central data centres. Global Market Insights estimates the Micro data centre market leaping to nearly $15 Bn by 2025. 
  • Disaggregated – Software is being developed for open environments and commercial off-shelf hardware, including network devices such as routers and switches. This enables operators to select their network equipment to significantly reduce deployment costs. 

Among these shifts, open and disaggregated networks will be the biggest deciding factor for telcos because they have the potential to reduce complexity and deliver high coverage. Network providers are now looking to move away from legacy systems towards more open, standard-based, software-centric virtual platforms. The goal is to create a robust network ecosystem to withstand competition and maintain a high quality of services while keeping costs low.

Open networking has been, is and will always be the solution.

Evolving radio access networks 

The only way to achieve these goals is by evolving radio access networks (RAN) to the next level of openness and intelligence. Telcos were always aware of this, but suffered from inertia, most likely due to concerns about the challenges that the shift to open networks presents: 

  • Multi-vendor interoperability is not always guaranteed - It is critical that the ecosystem develops and maintains truly open specifications and robust interoperability programs to generate telcos’ confidence in open RAN networks.
  • Stability and reliability is not established - Vendors understand the hyperdynamic nature of mobile networks. They know that even a small outage can lead to loss of revenue and reputation. They were not confident of achieving stability and reliability in a multi-vendor environment. 
  • Network complexity levels are not compelling enough – Previously, telcos were not compelled to switch to open networks because the prevailing level of network complexity was easily handled by incremental innovation. There was no need for drastic changes. In addition, the market leaders were not willing to dilute their proprietary presence in favour of commoditized products. 

Open technologies: From inertia to acceptance 

Now it is clear that new use cases demand digital network innovation, and a move to open technologies.  The proprietary boxes of radio heads and baseband units in radio access networks would be required to have disaggregated functions that can be virtualized. Also, telcos would be looking to replace monolithic telecom gear with networking components they can mix and match to make their networks more cost-effective. 

With the rising demand for open networking technology, the industry has sprung into action. The last couple of years saw significant players devising open, disaggregated networking solutions to support developing radio networks.

  • Nokia recently announced the adoption of O-RAN interfaces in its AirScale portfolio. 
  • STL recently invested and partnered with ASOCS to deliver full-stack V-RAN solutions to enterprises and telcos. 
  • Airspan recently partnered with Altiostar Networks to leverage their combined vRAN and intelligent radio solutions to accelerate the commercialization of O-RAN 4G and 5G platforms 
  • Ericsson is involved in several large-scale 5G RAN deployments in major economies including Germany, Oman, and the UK.
  • Samsung has signed an agreement with NTT DoCoMo for supporting the carrier’s next phase of open RAN development 
  • Cisco announced an ecosystem designed to accelerate the viability and adoption of open virtualized RAN (vRAN) solutions and ensure their extension into a broader network architecture 

Several communities have formed to promote an open networking ecosystem. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) created in 2016 spurs innovation, enables supplier/vendor diversity and reduces deployment and maintenance costs. In 2018, the O-RAN alliance was formed to drive new levels of openness for the next-gen wireless networks by creating interoperability standards. Both these organizations have a one-point agenda – drive the O-RAN movement forward and facilitate legacy vendors to open up their RAN.

Courtesy of the open communities, telcos have also warmed up to the idea and many of them  have started taking baby steps towards implementing openness in their networks:

  • Rakuten joined the O-RAN alliance and has built the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network, utilizing a multi-vendor approach. 
  • Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica are developing an open RAN ecosystem.
  • Vodafone recently rolled out new 4G services across the North-West region in 30 locations using O-RAN software from Parallel Wireless. 

This is just the beginning, but going forward, open networking will be the dominant form of networking with O-RAN estimated to account for $32.3bn worth of all radio access network spending (58 percent of the total) and be deployed at 65 percent of all sites by 2026, according to RAN research.  The market for O-RAN hardware and software will account for 10 percent of the total RAN market and exceed $5bn in cumulative revenue during the next five years. 

From acceptance to implementation 

After crossing this bridge of inertia to acceptance, the next big step will be ‘at-scale’ implementation. O-RAN is not easy in terms of deployment as operators still struggle with integration challenges and the complexities of an open framework. But there is always a natural progression for any new technology, and it will take some time before O-RAN becomes the norm. The biggest hurdle for the capital-strapped telcos is the upfront investment required to adopt this technology.

O-RAN deployment is primarily driven by solution planning and design, supply chain management, shipping logistics, component testing, RF optimization and drive testing. Radio access products require extensive testing before deployment. The TIP and O-RAN alliance can play a major role in making these solutions accessible. These communities are taking all measures to fulfill system integration, testing, and verification processes to create approved blueprints and reference designs.

The alliance helps hardware and software vendors and system integrators to combine their integration efforts and prepare for field deployments. Now all operators must do is deploy tested, verified, RAN solutions. In the future, this will diversify the role of system integrators as well, who, till now, were responsible for site build-outs of mostly physical components. They can now play the role of software integrators and simplify the deployment process.

The stage is set for bringing in openness in wireless networks. Now is the turn of operators to adopt the technology and vendors to create ecosystems accordingly. While every game-changing innovation comes with its own set of challenges, the benefits of O-RAN will allow enterprises and service providers to unlock the true potential of 5G.

Chris Rice, CEO Access Solutions, STL

Chris brings over 25 years of experience in the telecom industry. Prior to STL, he was associated with AT&T where he delivered on a multi-year technology strategy and vision for both the network and the underlying system’s evolution. He also led AT&T’s pivot to software-defined networking (SDN), leading the team that built the fundamental automation and platform capabilities to drive this shift. Chris holds an MBA from the University of Central Florida, a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, from Virginia Tech, and is a graduate from Rutgers’ wireless information networks laboratory (WINLAB).