Imagine a world where you can have a 3D, full-immersion conference call with your colleagues wherever they may be physically in the world…
Imagine a world where you can easily live stream on Instagram, a goal scored by your favourite player during the final of European Champions League from the stadium….
Imagine a world where drones deliver directly at home what you have purchased on eShops….
Imagine a world where you can relax while your autonomous car is safely taking you home during rush hour…
Imagine a world where your doctor is remotely assisting you during transportation to the hospital…
Is that world coming in a far future? No, it is not a far future. It can happen tomorrow, when 5G is deployed!
The 5G network revolution is coming and will require a huge investment from the telecom service providers. This is a challenge in an already competitive market and there are two ways to prevent further margin erosion:
- Reduce cost (both capex and opex)
- Increase revenues by creating new business opportunities
Open RAN is a promising way to reduce cost!
What is Open RAN?
The evolution of mobile networks has been characterized by an explosion of data traffic, in correspondence of new technologies introduction (from 1G to 4G), and by an incredible reduction of cost per bit. It is extremely challenging for operators to protect margins in this scenario, even considering that each technology step requires new investments, both, as new equipment to be installed, and for running network operations.
Also, the telecom OEM ecosystem has changed considerably during the last couple of years. At the very beginning of mobile communication revolution, we can remember a number of players competing each other. Competition brought a concentration of the market, reducing the number of big players that today dominate the market. Reducing options for TSPs meant a reduced ability to reduce OEM costs.
TSPs are therefore looking for new ways to reduce their cost and increase the revenues.
The concept of ’disaggregation’ initially started during the 4G evolution, by breaking the link between HW and SW. The idea is to develop network virtual functions capable of running on generic HW (White Boxes). This trend started in IT technologies and has become a reality for core functions of 4G networks. This trend is opening the telecom market to a number of new SW players, thus increasing the competition. Generic HW is also opening the possibility to reduce the cost, breaking the lock to the specific function that in the past, required a customized HW.
5G deployment standards enable the application of this concept also to the RAN that is actually the biggest part of the investment and Open RAN is a further step along this path.
“Open RAN is the ability to integrate, deploy, and operate radio access networks using components, subsystems and software sourced from multiple suppliers.” (Heavy Reading)
Open RAN refers to the project group that is a part of the Telecom Infra Group (TIP) whose main objective is the deployment of fully programmable RAN solutions based on GPPP/COTS and disaggregated software.
The O-RAN alliance, the other main driver of the Open RAN concept, focused on efforts on standardizing interfaces. The O-RAN alliance was founded in 2018 by AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO, and Orange. It aims to standardize all interfaces among Radio Unit (RU), Distributed Unit (DU), and Central Unit (CU) (being DU and CU the disaggregated version of what was BBU in 4G).
Motivation for Open RAN
- Increase vendor diversity/reduce lock-in
- Have a cost-effective solution to cover new and/or marginal geographies
- Open new services and monetization opportunities
- Optimize network capex
- Gain control of feature development to differentiate from other operators and enable best of breed features
- Optimize network opex, by leveraging on automation both in network deployment and operations
- Government mandate
(Source: “Heavy Reading 2020 Open RAN Operator Survey”)
Challenges of Open RAN
5G will increase network complexity from many points of view. RAN will see different layers depending on frequencies used (low-medium bands to provide coverage, mmWave to provide high capacity, and low latency). Cell range could decrease up to hundreds of meters, and therefore, cell density will increase. Network slicing will open up the possibility to activate a network layer, meeting specific requirements in dependence of the service that the operator has to deliver. Having many layers of different networks on top of each other increases complexity.
NFVs running on telco cloud infrastructure opens a new concept of network operations by introducing automation to deploy, activate, and run NFVs, assuring self-healing and automatic scaling up/down in correlation to running workloads.
Radio Intelligent Controller (RIC) introduces a further level of automation of RAN operations whose complexity will increase in 5G networks. Let’s think, for example, of traffic steering, massive MIMO, beamforming, V2X, and complex handover schemes. It is clear that enabling automation is the only way to prevent an increase in cost of RAN operations! A multivendor scenario enables cost reduction, by increasing the competition and at the same time increasing the number of variants and network configurations. Also, service assurance can be a challenge due to functions from multiple vendors. Who is responsible in case of failures or performance degradation?
To mention finally, the maturity level of “turnkey solution” coming from traditional telecom OEM is different from an ecosystem of functions coming from many new players or developed by open source communities.
Role of a System Integrator
The system integrators will play a big role in 5G deployment and even more when deploying open RAN solutions, through all stages of 5G network deployment. System Integrators can bring:
- During Development Phase
- Expertise in integrating NFVs in a multivendor ecosystem
- Help in validating the network operations, assuring standard compliance against acceptance test criteria
- Co-develop xApps of radio intelligent controller
- Co-develop POC and first trials
- Optimize RAN operations and performances
- Expertise in test automation and CI/CD/CT services
- E2E lab as a service solutions
- Integration Phase
- Integration services of radio intelligent controller
- RAN optimization, operational monitoring, and troubleshooting
- Post-deployment Phase
- E2E system testing of RAN, core, and transport network in multivendor environment
- Assurance solutions, including ticketing system and BOT
- Managed RAN/5G as a Service
5G network revolution is coming and TSPs are coping with the challenge to protect their margins at scale. This is bigger than what has happened in all technological transition of mobile networks.
Open RAN is a promising way to reduce cost, by breaking the vendor lock-in, and leveraging on ways of working from open source communities.
System integrators will play a huge role by partnering TSP, bringing their expertise and skills, and helping them in making 5G network a reality!