In developed markets, 5G roll-out is in full swing and mobile operators are spending considerable amounts of capital building next-generation networks and marketing them to the public. Current connectivity standards to meet global bandwidth demands, however, have not yet caught up.
At the end of 2019, there were 5.1 billion unique mobile subscribers representing 68% of the world’s population, according to GSMA Intelligence (2019). With the volume and variety of mobile traffic continuing to surge, mobile operators have come under pressure to meet this increasing capacity demand while containing costs and launching new offerings in highly competitive mobile services markets.
As we move towards the introduction of 5G, a new, software-based approach is needed for operators to deploy and run 5G technology efficiently alongside their 3G and 4G networks. Particularly, Open RAN – or O-RAN – technology is fast gaining traction as the telecom industry’s answer for facilitating more flexible and virtualized networks, allowing service providers to speed up 5G network development through an open architecture.
Openness, agility and embedded intelligence will characterize the RANs of the future.
Open RAN for 5G Explained
In what is already a capital-intensive industry, RANs (Radio Access Networks) are a significant expense for mobile operators. Traditional RAN networks, which are typically hardware-centric and designed in silos for each generation of connectivity (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G), are built using the technology of major vendors. By its nature, this technology is ‘closed’ so it is incompatible with other vendors. Subsequently, the hardware giants dictate the timings and cost of any maintenance and installation, which means that networks have been very difficult to adapt and upgrade.
With the advent of 5G, however, a more cost-effective, agile RAN has to be built to support densification and richer, more demanding applications. To facilitate software-driven, intelligent and energy-efficient mobile networks and equipment, the Open RAN approach was designed to separate hardware and software in the network – essentially paving the way for a vendor ecosystem to emerge and provide open source networking solutions.
Open interfaces and common development standards are what Open RAN aims to achieve. By enabling an interoperable multi-vendor ecosystem, the disaggregation of RANs will give operators the flexibility to effectively deploy and upgrade their networks, reduce complexity, and deliver coverage at a much lower cost.
Open RAN also makes it easier for the network to support Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) technology, which allows LTE and 5G New Radio technology transmission at the same time. For early adoption of 5G smartphones, DSS is vital since it relies on both 5G and LTE transmission.
Related topic: What is 5G Network Slicing?
The Technology Behind Open RAN
According to a white paper published by the O-RAN Alliance, a worldwide community of now more than 160 mobile operators, vendors and research and academic institutions operating in the RAN industry, these are identified as the fundamental drivers of Open RAN:
RAN Intelligent Controller
White Box Hardware
Open Source Software
The 3 main initiatives of Open RAN as defined by the O-RAN Alliance:
- Reduce the usage of proprietary hardware and push for merchant silicon and off-the-shelf hardware.
- Lead the way towards RAN virtualization, open interfaces, and AI-capable RAN.
- Establish interfaces and APIs that can support appropriate standards for adoption and explore open source.
The Benefits of Open RAN for Mobile Operators
A way to easily customize and scale networks to fit their requirements is a welcome change for operators. The days, months or even years waiting for a new service, feature or offering to be deployed can now be greatly reduced.
The fact that Open RAN and its principles essentially advocate for a new way of restructuring RANs brings many upsides for operators. By being able to act fast and build new offers to react to changing consumer trends, operators can ensure that they are able to monetize their current and future network assets for further business development. Global operators are already reaping the benefits from this open and agile way of working.
By playing an important role in boosting subscriber engagement, operators can prevent themselves from being seen as just a utility. For example, a leading operator in Indonesia – Telkomsel – built and launched an entirely new sub-brand in just under 18 weeks to target its growing Gen-Z population. Knowing it needed a new and different offering to appeal to a younger audience, Telekomsel used open digital APIs, open digital architectures and a vendor ecosystem all working together to implement an end-to-end Business Support System (BSS) suite. Leveraging Open RAN’s range of capabilities led to Telekomsel gaining the agility to innovate quickly and react to the trends occurring across their subscriber base.
Therefore, what may have arguably been seen as a risky approach to deploying new technologies, may pay future dividends as a flexible alternative. In an open, multi-vendor environment, an underperforming vendor can be easily swapped out without placing strain on the rest of the network operation. Operators thus gain the freedom to choose and select who they desire to work with and on what terms, reducing the headaches associated with being forced into impractical vendor-operator relationships.
Managing Costs and The Scale of 5G Deployment
For all operators around the world, cost continues to be a major concern—whether that be the cost of 5G infrastructure, or the cost of maintaining or increasing their subscriber base. For overall profitability, any cost saving operators obtain could have a major impact.
In regions where the numbers of mobile subscriptions are soaring exponentially, operators are forced to rethink old ways of working. It is gradually propelling operators towards a more open, collaborative way of working that is seeing smaller, independent network vendors displacing major network equipment providers (NEPs).
In the core, in the RAN, and in supporting OSS and BSS, change is happening across the entire network. The emergence of open RAN is a key development of this change. The progression of more operators being able to implement vendor-neutral, general-purpose RAN hardware and software will lead to seamless 5G roll-outs.
The List of Contributors to Open RAN’s Development Grows
Led by groups like the O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project, Open RAN’s importance to 5G networks has reached another consensus, with the formation of the Open RAN Policy Coalition in early May 2020. A coalition of 31 big name technology companies and operators, it aims to ensure interoperability across different participants and possibly lower the barrier to entry for new innovators, by establishing policies which can boost standardization and development of open interfaces.
Spanning across the globe to advance the development of an open supply chain for 5G technologies, some of the founding coalition members are: Dell, Fujitsu, AWS, AT&T, Cisco, Google, Facebook, IBM, Verizon, Intel, Oracle, NTT, Microsoft, Rakuten, NEC Corporation, Parallel Wireless, XCOM-Labs, Samsung Electronics America, Telefónica, VMWare, Vodafone, and World Wide Technology.
In 2020, the momentum behind Open RAN will continue to grow as many more operators realize how they can reduce costs, drive more competition between technology vendors, and stimulate higher levels of innovation in the industry. Major players in the industry clearly support Open RAN, however, it is crucial that operators recognize the most effective technology partner to facilitate the Open RAN vision. Ultimately, this software-driven approach is all about presenting operators with the right tools to become future digital providers.