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

It’s been 22 years since ESPN hosted the premier live video streaming event. Digital technology has since transformed the way we live, and networks can now support outsized applications and services.

The number of applications using wireless networks continues to increase and we estimate that by 2023:

  • The number of connected devices will be 3 times greater than the world population
  • M2M will represent 50% of connected devices and connections worldwide
  • Over 70% of the world’s population will have mobile connectivity and 100% by 2030

Legacy telecommunications infrastructure, however, remains monolithic and vendor dependent. Networks run largely on tightly integrated proprietary software and hardware, and are primarily hardware-centric with software driving specific applications. Traditionally, carriers have faced limited supplier choices, high CapEx and OpEx, and limited flexibility. They try to solve the scale and bandwidth issues and it turns out to be costly.

Additionally, increased traffic, increasing network complexity, and the large number of new devices have resulted in a problem that simply cannot be solved with existing architectures. There is a need for a new network architecture, and it is evolving with four fundamental technological changes that have become more significant over the past year.

  • Edge – 2020 focused on bringing the power of the whole cloud to the edge of the network – closer to the user for faster response times and better experiences. . Gartner predicts that by 2025, 75% of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed at the edge, up from 10% in 2018.
  • Converged – The past year has seen an unprecedented convergence of wireless access and wired networks. This will improve the experiences even for mobile users.
  • Compute – Rather than just being data carriers, networks are getting smart now. They are powered by processors, storage and memory devices that allow them to act as an extension of central data centers. Global Market Insights estimates that the micro data center market will jump to nearly $ 15 billion by 2025.
  • Disaggregated – Software is under development for open environments and standard commercial hardware, including network devices such as routers and switches. This allows operators to select their network equipment to dramatically reduce deployment costs.

Among these changes, open and disaggregated networks will be the most important deciding factor for telecom operators, as they have the potential to reduce complexity and provide high coverage. Network providers are now looking to move from legacy systems to more open, standards-based, software-centric virtual platforms. The goal is to create a robust network ecosystem to withstand competition and maintain high quality of service while keeping costs low.

Open networks have been, are and always will be the solution.

Evolving radio access networks

The only way to achieve these goals is to evolve Radio Access Networks (RANs) to the next level of openness and intelligence. Telecom operators have always been aware of this, but suffered from inertia, possibly due to concerns over the challenges posed by the move to open networks:

  • Multi-vendor interoperability is not always guaranteed – It is essential that the ecosystem develops and maintains truly open specifications and robust interoperability programs to generate the confidence of telecom operators in open RANs.
  • Stability and reliability are not established – Providers understand the hyperdynamic nature of mobile networks. They know that even a small outage can lead to loss of revenue and reputation. They weren’t sure they would achieve stability and reliability in a multi-vendor environment.
  • Network complexity levels are not convincing enough – Previously, telecom operators were not required to move to open networks because the level of complexity of the current network was easily managed by incremental innovation. There was no need for drastic changes. Additionally, market leaders were unwilling to dilute their proprietary presence in favor of commoditized products.

Open technologies: from inertia to acceptance

It is now clear that new use cases require innovation in digital networks and a move towards open technologies. Enclosures that own radio heads and baseband units in radio access networks should have disaggregated functions that can be virtualized. In addition, telecom operators are said to be looking to replace monolithic telecom equipment with network components that they can mix and match to make their networks more profitable.

With the growing demand for open networking technology, the industry has taken action. Over the past two years, major players have designed open and disaggregated networking solutions to support the development of radio networks.

  • Nokia recently announced the adoption of O-RAN interfaces in its AirScale portfolio.
  • STL recently invested and partnered with ASOCS to provide complete V-RAN solutions to enterprises and telecom operators.
  • Airspan recently partnered with Altiostar Networks to leverage their combined vRAN and smart radio solutions to accelerate the time to market of 4G and 5G O-RAN platforms
  • Ericsson is involved in several large-scale RAN 5G deployments in major economies including Germany, Oman and the UK.
  • Samsung signed an agreement with NTT DoCoMo to support the operator’s next phase of open RAN development
  • Cisco Announced Ecosystem Designed to Accelerate the Viability and Adoption of Open Virtualized RAN (vRAN) Solutions and Extend them into a Larger Network Architecture

Several communities have formed to promote an open networking ecosystem. The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) created in 2016 stimulates innovation, enables supplier / supplier diversity and reduces deployment and maintenance costs. In 2018, the O-RAN alliance was formed to generate new levels of openness for next-generation wireless networks by creating interoperability standards. These two organizations have a single goal: to advance the O-RAN movement and help traditional vendors open up their RANs.

Thanks to open communities, telecom operators have also warmed to the idea and many of them have started to take small steps towards implementing openness in their networks:

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

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

From acceptance to implementation

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

The deployment of O-RAN 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 take all steps to complete the system integration, testing, and verification processes to create approved baseline plans and designs.

The alliance helps hardware and software vendors and systems integrators combine their integration efforts and prepare for field deployments. Now all operators need to do is deploy tested and verified RAN solutions. In the future, this will also diversify the role of systems integrators, who until now were responsible for building sites for most physical components. They can now play the role of software integrators and simplify the deployment process.

The stage is set to introduce openness into wireless networks. Now it is the operators’ turn to adopt the technology and the suppliers to create the ecosystems accordingly. While each breakthrough innovation comes with its own set of challenges, the benefits of O-RAN will enable businesses and service providers to unlock the true potential of 5G.

Chris Rice, CEO of Access Solutions, LIST

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