Over the past few years, the role of technology in the day-to-day lives of people has expanded gradually. Smartphone and connected device penetration is constantly growing. Further, key trends such as increased distribution and consumption of video and multimedia services, growth in digital payments, uptake in mobile gaming and other user engagement platforms have all contributed towards generation of more complex and dynamic traffic patterns that impose new requirements on modern networks. These trends, along with the consequent surge in data traffic, became more pronounced during the Covid-19-induced lockdown as millions of people stayed home and moved to the online medium to carry out all their tasks. The new work-from-home culture has definitely added significantly to the data traffic on existing networks.

Given the context, the need to make networks more agile, scalable and adaptable, has become more apparent now than ever. Therefore, operators are now increasingly looking at solutions such as open RAN and cloud, in an effort to modernise their network infrastructure.

Changing network requirements: Open RAN takes centre stage

Over the past five years, the concept of open RAN has generated a significant buzz across the telecommunications industry. Owing to various advantages that the technology offers to telcos, it is fast emerging as the go-to solution for operators. RAN, including base stations and antennas, make up the majority of network cost. Open RAN enables telecom service providers to diversify supply chains, and bring in unprecedented levels of interoperability and agility, which can help reduce their capex by almost 50 per cent. In fact, a robust supply chain ecosystem as promoted by open RAN can actively encourage the entry of new vendors into market, thereby increasing competition and innovation.

Analysts have also highlighted that open RAN helps lower costs with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) processing equipment for the baseband unit (BBU) and commoditisation of the RU hardware. Moreover, open RAN supports the disaggregation of software from proprietary hardware, thereby facilitating the creation and rapid deployment of new services and operational solutions.

5G: A key driver of open RAN

A key factor driving the adoption of open RAN is its role in facilitating 5G networks. According to industry reports, 5G deployment costs are expected to fall by 30 per cent between 2019 and 2022, if a network is built in the traditional way, and by 50 per cent if it is based on open architecture. Further, open RAN enables operators to increase the number of their network infrastructure partners, and deliver better and more cost-effective 5G networks. By adopting open infrastructure, which comprises open source software, non-proprietary hardware and multivendor collaboration, telecom operators can create fully virtualised infrastructure capable of delivering critical 5G-based services. Open RAN can thus help operators reduce deployment costs, improve interoperability between vendors and bring intelligent computing to the edge of the network, thereby improving performance and unlocking new 5G capabilities.

Further, open networks can help diversify and reinvigorate the supply chain by promoting competition and innovation. For instance, operators can focus on building and operating a RAN based on mix-and-match components from different vendors. Moreover, these are future-proof networks that do not need replacement of infrastructure, but only a simple software upgrade. They also provide agility and scalability across all network components, allowing operators to deliver higher throughput without any coverage or capacity limitations. In addition, network capacity augmentation and optimisation is enhanced by the simplification of nodes and the usage of new automated methods and artificial intelligence algorithms.

A recent study found that 5G deployment leveraging open RAN saw capex savings of over 49 per cent.

Challenges in the way

While open RAN offers a host of benefits to operators, there are also plenty of challenges. While considering deployment and management of Open RAN architecture, the most crucial task for both operators and equipment manufacturers is to ensure interoperability, manageability, optimisation and end-to-end performance in an open RAN environment.

Another challenge that operators face with open RAN is troubleshooting network issues once the network has been deployed. Industry experts have highlighted that in a multivendor environment it is difficult to identify product-related network performance issues, which might not be the case in traditional single-vendor networks. This is because in an open RAN network, operators require open standards as well as vendor-independent validation and troubleshooting to resolve network performance issues.

Moreover, once 5G kicks in, deploying 5G RAN would require planning for a range of new features such as multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas, large spectrum bandwidth and multiband carrier aggregation. This poses a challenge for the growth and maintenance of networks, which not only need to support multiple generations of connectivity (3G, 4G and 5G) but also scale to meet rising data demands.

Telco cloud: Enabling operators to manage their network

As mentioned earlier, the digital profile of the modern consumer is quickly evolving and he/she is becoming more tech savvy. As the interaction points of users with the digital world are increasing, more pressure is being put on existing networks. The data traffic on networks has already increased manyfold and it is expected to grow further as new-age use cases such as video streaming and connected devices get more deeply entrenched in the day-to-day lives of consumers. In order to efficiently manage the large amount of data traffic that is expected to be generated because of these use cases, networks need to become more agile, scalable and adaptable. Today, network requirements have become more complex than existing architectures can manage cost effectively. Industry analysts have opined that linearly scaling up infrastructure is not economically sustainable in the face of near-infinite demand and a wide range of possible services.

Increased network efficiency and agility have become a critical part of the network economics of the future and are key to delivering on the customer experience promise. This is where cloud solutions come in.

Telco cloudification refers to hosting or using network resources and services from the cloud. They could be private, public, or hybrid. Cloudification can happen at different levels – cloud enabled, wherein some services still use legacy systems while others are provided through the cloud; cloud based, where the entire network is in the cloud; or cloud native, where services are built in the cloud.

As per a recent Ericsson study, network function virtualisation and cloud deployment across the network enables the transformation of traditional integrated vertical stacks of hardware and software in a typical network from a single vendor to layers of generic hardware and cloud software that can run applications from any telecom vendor. As part of this approach, expensive network nodes are replaced with centralised software control that can hide the complexity of the network from applications and services, increase flexibility and reduce cost. This, therefore, helps in reducing vendor lock-in and increases the opportunity to innovate. Industry reports suggest that the average savings for cloud network deployments are around 37 per cent over five years. In addition to the capex and opex savings, telco cloud also enables new services and business models.

The way forward

Cloudification of networks and deployment of open RAN solutions is where the industry is headed. This evidently will bring a host of opportunities for various stakeholders. For instance, use of open RAN and software up defined telecom networks will open new opportunities for Indian entities to enter the network equipment market. However, tapping of these opportunities would require efficient ironing out of various impediments in the way. Issues such as ensuring interoperability of networks and the possibility of telcos interchanging vendors’ software and hardware while still being able to achieve the same performance, need to be resolved. Further, telcos would need to integrate robust multivendor testing processes from the lab to the field and beyond to fully realise and reap the benefits of open network architecture.