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How telecoms can open the door to transformation

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

5G has the potential to be a truly transformative technology. It is expected to provide low latency and high bandwidth network connections to serve use cases covering artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, self-driving cars, industrial automation and everything in between.

However, building out 5G networks is an expensive undertaking, and one of the biggest expenses for mobile operators is the Radio Access Network (RAN). Legacy RAN networks, built using the technology of the major vendors, are typically composed of specialised hardware that is built according to rigid specifications and designed in silos for each generation of connectivity (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G). The technology is ‘closed’ by its nature, which means that it is incompatible with other vendors. Once network technology improves, the old equipment is deemed obsolete and must be replaced with the hardware of the new connectivity generation. Consequently, networks have been very difficult to adapt and upgrade, with the ‘big three’ RAN technology giants - Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – dictating the market after years of consolidation.

5G has the potential to be a truly transformative technology. It is expected to provide low latency and high bandwidth network connections to serve use cases covering artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, self-driving cars, industrial automation and everything in between.

Learning from the enterprise

Some estimates put mobile network operators (MNOs) between five and seven years behind a normal innovation curve due to the lack of competition in the market. This is a similar situation to the state of the data centre industry in the 1990s, during the dot-com boom, and before companies like VMWare and Intel rapidly turned the market upside down. In the 90s, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software was seen as an effective tool to reduce the time and cost involved with software development. But COTS software came with trade-offs. Any reductions in initial cost and development time were counterbalanced by dependency on a select few vendors, incompatibilities with future changes and security concerns. Does that situation sound familiar?

The data centre industry – and most enterprise businesses for that matter – saw the value of software-centric workflows and transitioned to more open market models, with competing software vendors fostering innovation. Even traditional hardware manufacturers have subsequently moved to software-centric businesses and a DevOps model of working, allowing greater development of software and virtualisation. This is a model the telecoms industry has been particularly slow to adopt. DevOps may still be a new term for many in the telecom space, but it has now become a prominent issue for MNOs looking to generate greater operational and network efficiencies.

Taking a DevOps approach to building 5G networks brings benefits to overall network operations. Through cloud-native software, MNOs can integrate 5G efficiently with their existing network architectures, allowing them to maximise their already enormous investments into 2G, 3G and 4G without the need for greater spend on additional hardware. Thus, MNOs can save huge amounts in CAPEX and OPEX. Moore’s law disrupted the consumer industry, then the enterprise technology sector, and now it will disrupt telecoms too.

Opening up to OpenRAN

As we move towards the introduction of 5G, the industry is now beginning to realise that the economics of building the RAN need to change, and momentum is building behind the OpenRAN movement. 2019 saw significant moves towards the OpenRAN model, a new way of building radio networks based on a software-centric and open infrastructure, disaggregating hardware from software in the network. This helps networks support open interfaces and common development standards, to deliver multi-vendor, interoperable networks.

Naturally, some brands can still supply both hardware and software, but the message behind OpenRAN is about the decoupling of the two, providing more choice and interoperability. This gives operators the flexibility to cost-effectively deploy and upgrade their networks, reduce complexity, and deliver coverage at a much lower cost.

OpenRAN also makes it easier for networks to support dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which allows 4G/LTE and 5G New Radio technology transmission at the same time. DSS is key to the early adoption of 5G smartphones, which will rely on both 5G and 4G/LTE transmission. The benefits of OpenRAN were illustrated by Vodafone’s recent announcement that it would be opening its entire RAN in Europe to OpenRAN vendors. OpenRAN is so appealing to operators such as Vodafone, as it enables them to manage all connectivity standards using a software interface. Being able to support all generations of mobile connectivity under the same OpenRAN software umbrella is crucial to providing reliable connectivity for all and allowing the transformative benefits of 5G to be realised.

Internet para Todos (IpT), a wholesale operator owned by Telefonica, Facebook, and Latin American banks IDB Invest and CAF Bank is also driving momentum, alongside South Africa based MTN. These players have been the most active promoters of the Telecoms Infrastructure Project (TIP), with Vodafone making the aforementioned announcement during TIP Summit in November. Change does take time, and the industry will likely continue to trial new sites and then explore legacy networks, but groups like TIP and the O-RAN alliance are crucial to driving change in the industry and are the catalyst to getting the idea of OpenRAN through to big operators. The Data Centre industry also went through changes primarily in secondary and tertiary markets first of all, before being scaled up to major markets and running the NYSE!

In 2020, the momentum behind OpenRAN will continue to grow as other operators realise how they can reduce costs, drive more competition between technology vendors, and stimulate higher levels of innovation in the industry. The industry is hungry for change, and open-minded operators are the ones which will succeed. That might mean the traditional ‘big three’, don’t stay the big three for long!

Software has changed many aspects of our working and personal lives over the last couple of decades, mostly for the better. The same benefits must now be realised by the telecoms industry, with a greater emphasis on software as part of 5G network development. The lack of a vibrant ecosystem has limited innovation in the industry and kept the cost of network capacity high. Governments throughout the world are acutely aware of this and are now working with challenger vendors and the MNOs to address the issue and encourage change. Unless they embrace change, the traditional players risk becoming obsolete as the telecoms industry starts demanding networks that are open and flexible.

Steve Papa, CEO, Parallel Wireless