Sanjay Harwani, VP, Research and Development and GM-India, Parallel Wireless
The Indian telecom industry is at a crossroads today. As mobile network operators (MNOs) prepare for 5G spectrum auctions and the launch of 5G services later this year, the industry needs to decide whether to continue with siloed legacy network architecture or adopt the new-age, virtualised and software-centric open RAN (ORAN) technology.
A growing number of service providers, including MTN, Vodafone and Orange, are realising that ORAN offers tremendous benefits, including a more vibrant ecosystem, network simplification, and a significant drop in capital and operational expenses. In addition, it empowers MNOs to cost-effectively enhance network performance.
The cumulative ORAN revenue from 2020 to 2025 is projected to be as high as $15 billion, with ORAN likely to account for more than 10 per cent of the overall RAN market by 2025, according to a Dell’Oro report.
5G-led network transformation
5G offers a perfect opportunity to Indian MNOs to move away from hardware-centric monolithic networks to more agile, flexible and programmable ones. While ORAN can be used in all networks from 2G to 5G, it is a must-have for the latter, as the technology demands a fundamentally different approach to network architecture.
With ultra-high speed broadband and extremely low latency, 5G is an enabler of several new use cases such as remote surgery, autonomous driving, immersive education, cloud gaming, smart cities and Industry 4.0. 5G is not entirely focused on the consumer segment, unlike previous communications standards. 5G promises to transform several industries, including logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, public safety and mining. Further, it is a more spectrally efficient technology and allows MNOs to connect more users simultaneously using the same infrastructure. Traditional network architecture is not geared for new use cases. As of November 2021, there have been approximately 170 commercial 5G deployments, covering 7 per cent of the global population according to GSMA. About 25 per cent of global connections will be on 5G by 2025.
ORAN disaggregates the hardware and software components of a network and enables MNOs to run software-based network functions on standard commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) servers. Essentially, this allows MNOs to procure different network components from different vendors, thus improving network economics and building a more vibrant partner ecosystem.
5G use cases can be divided into three categories: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable low latency communications (uRLLC), and massive machine type communications (mMTC).
Today, most 5G deployments are based on non-standalone (NSA) architecture, which uses the existing 4G network to provide faster speeds and a better network experience. eMBB is a natural evolution of 4G and offers faster data rates and a superior user experience. So, while eMBB use cases are possible with 5G NSA, this is not true for uRLLC and mMTC.
Multiple path-breaking 5G use cases that use uRLLC and mMTC, such as remote surgery, autonomous vehicles and smart grids, need 5G standalone (SA) networks. A true 5G experience is only possible with 5G SA, which uses 5G core and 5G radios.
Why does 5G SA need cloud-native ORAN?
An ORAN that connects to 5G SA is ideal for new applications, as it provides extreme reliability, improves latency and allows a larger number of people and devices to use mobile data at the same time.
This year, an increasing number of MNOs are likely to transition to 5G SA, and several 5G use cases will start to become mainstream. The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) has identified 97 MNOs that have invested in 5G SA (including evaluation/testing, piloting, planning, deployment and launch) as of November 2021. Further, the GSA has catalogued 20 MNOs that have deployed/launched 5G SA in public networks.
5G use cases empower service providers to go beyond basic connectivity solutions. However, MNOs can leverage this opportunity only if they partner and collaborate with vendors, start-ups, and content and application developers. To this end, ORAN offers a significant advantage over legacy networks, because it is inherently built to integrate a broad ecosystem of software and hardware vendors. Further, ORAN provides unprecedented flexibility and scalability, allowing it to meet 5G application requirements across different industry verticals with varying network demands for capacity, latency and performance.
ORAN-based 5G SA ensures interoperability and network intelligence while reducing the total cost of ownership. A cloud-native ORAN solution also enables automation, which is required to simplify network management and ensure scalable and agile network operations. Moreover, it ensures automated orchestration and management, providing long-term benefits for the MNO such as zero touch provisioning, continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), and artificial intelligence- and machine learning-enabled network monitoring and optimisation.
Adding yet another layer of new technology is only going to make the network more complex and difficult to manage. A cloud-native ORAN that connects to 5G SA would enable automation of network management, making networks more agile and flexible, and easier to manage. More importantly, it would reduce the time-to-market for new services, improve profitability, and decrease network expenses.