The 5G era is representative of many things – innovative new services, unprecedented speeds, new monetization opportunities and the spread of high-speed connectivity to previously untouched geographies. Yet, unlocking all this potential has been a challenge for service providers, and while the obstacles seem small compared to the gains, they have been persistent.
Service providers are promising a variety of new services for both the enterprise and consumers, ranging from industrial automation and connected cars to advanced cloud gaming, AR/VR and 8K video streaming. But to truly unlock the potential of these services, it’s not enough to deploy 5G networks. Service providers need the right combination of software and specialization, a thriving and open ecosystem of ISVs and IHVs that innovate faster, and an end to vendor lock-in. This will only happen once the networking community fully embraces open radio access networks like those being led by the O-RAN Alliance.
With O-RAN, service providers can mix and match technologies from different vendors, ultimately speeding up implementations to enable new capabilities at a fraction of the cost, which is becoming more and more enticing for the industry — particularly amid COVID-19. But that’s not all, it’s also transforming radio access networks making them open while adding a level of intelligence bringing AI/ML to make them more resilient. But, obstacles stand in the way before O-RAN becomes an industry standard, and there are no quick fixes for telcos to solve for them.
Making disaggregation a strategic priority
To start, the underlying infrastructure of 5G networks must be built on a solid foundation, one that’s flexible enough to adapt to ever-changing business needs. That flexibility must allow providers to turn on new features and functionalities to meet the diverse, end-to-end requirements of the new services enabled by 5G. But building up to it requires fully interoperable software and hardware, which can only be achieved through disaggregation and open interfaces to mix and match components driven by specific use cases.
At a high-level, disaggregation is the decoupling of two normally integrated components, with the goal of creating choice and flexibility at a more granular level than the previous system would afford. More specifically, disaggregation is a powerful tool against vendor lock-in inviting competition and a best-of-breed approach into service provider networks. It gives the providers the power to choose from a long list of potential partners on a variety of services across the network, and ultimately build the system that best fits their specific needs.
In creating a disaggregated architecture to support O-RAN, the challenge for service providers is moving to an open model that maintains integration and still keeps networks robust and reliable. The industry has already made a lot of progress on integration, most recently creating the Open RAN Policy Coalition, which promotes policies that will advance the adoption of open and interoperable solutions in the radio access network, but, there’s still much more work to be done — particularly on the vendor side to improve collaboration and integration among key players. One challenge that is also an opportunity is to provide system integration capabilities that can integrate building blocks from multiple vendors while ensuring robustness, stability, and ease of operation.
Collaboration with established RAN players
O-RAN is not about throwing out the baby with the bath water. The primary RAN vendors have a place in the network as well, but it can no longer be as a bottleneck to innovation or a protector of their business model. The smart RAN vendors are seeing this, and more and more are warming to the concept of open RAN as networks evolve to deliver an even broader range of services on the heels of 5G adoption.
This trend will only gain more momentum in the year ahead as more service providers look to usher in interoperable solutions into their network with enhanced benefits including stronger security points. We’re already seeing this happening, with DISH and Rakuten both independently developing O-RAN compliant 5G wireless networks for their respective markets in the US and Japan. Rakuten claims that the cost of building an O-RAN based network saves 40% compared to the cost of building a RAN using the traditional architecture. With the disaggregated O-RAN architecture, both the operators have selected different vendors (both established and newer) to supply components such as RU, DU, and CU, and so on encouraging an open ecosystem of technology providers with strengths in different domains.
New RAN architectures
Depending on the spectrum, size of the cell, and coverage density, O-RAN based networks can utilize specialized hardware that are COTS-based (e.g., x86 based systems) with functions implemented in the software. This aspect itself also opens up the ecosystem with Intel FlexRAN-like reference architectures to encourage software-based innovation from a wider x86-based software ecosystem.
Another innovation related to O-RAN architectures is the re-imagining of the traditional RAN Intelligence Controller (RIC). Radio intelligent controllers, Non-RT RIC and Near-RT RIC are two modules introduced in the O-RAN architecture that enhance traditional functions with embedded intelligence and the use of machine learning (ML/AI). RIC provides open interfaces to integrate external applications, called xApps, and rApps from different providers to enable new kinds of optimizations such as spectral efficiency or capacity management. This architecture enables intelligent traffic prediction and radio resource management using ML models that would adapt to measured network behavior and performance. Such intelligence would enable RAN Slicing SLA Assurance for context-based dynamic handover management such as vehicle-to-everything communication, optimization of QoE (Quality of Experience), and other dynamic optimizations to enable new 5G services. This would also allow rapid onboarding of new features to support localized use cases such as a stadium event, concert or emergency response.
Managing traffic surges amid COVID
While the telecom supply chain was a key issue facing the industry before COVID-19 hit, the pandemic has had a profound impact on every part of today’s networks, and open RAN is no exception. After all, COVID exacerbated the need for providers to lean further into vendor choice and flexibility to better capitalize on mix-and-match solutions that help reduce operating costs — all as part of a bigger effort to manage the surge in network traffic while still staying profitable.
But the pandemic and its aftermath are an example of an area where the desire for openness and a best-of-breed approach shines brightest. Closed, hardware-driven networks are expensive and difficult to scale, especially in a world where every provider is working with so few suppliers. Networks that have high interoperability can scale quickly and add new services, whether that is network automation, monitoring, AI Ops or network management.
The ability to be nimble and quickly adjust for new scenarios is a fundamental part of what O-RAN will bring to the 5G era.
The bottom line
O-RAN has the potential to be a major force for change in the world, not just the industry. While it is true that open, interoperable and intelligent networks will allow service providers to drive efficiency and better monetize their networks, that is just table stakes. We are on the precipice of true life-changing innovation, which will come in the form of connected cars, smart cities, industrial IoT, and bringing high-speed connectivity to underserviced or untouched parts of the world, whether its solving the rural broadband gap in America or making major advancements in Africa.
These innovations will have dramatic impacts on the economic prospects of many and will lead to a more enriched and innovative world.