Open radio access networks (RAN) are catching up at a phenomenal pace in the telecom domain. As per a recent report by the Dell’Oro Group, global open RAN telecom gear revenues have crushed expectations, having accelerated at a brisk pace in the first half of 2022. The rapid growth can be attributed to the crucial role that open RAN plays in helping build programmable, agile and flexible networks that can facilitate innovative use cases. This is especially true for supporting new age te­chnology-based use cases in the 5G era.

As the world gears up to embrace 5G te­chnology, adopting cloud-native open RAN has become crucial for telcos. A clo­ud-native open RAN solution enables au­tomation, which is required to simplify net­­work management, and ensure scalable and agile network operations. Further, the combined power of these technologies can facilitate a plethora of innovative use cases. Industry experts believe that the involvement of big public cloud providers is likely to provide a huge impetus to open RAN adoption, thereby opening up exciting new opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain.

Growth metrics

Currently, open RAN interfaces and architectures are easier to deploy for greenfield service providers. They are extremely difficult to deploy for brownfield operators that have already widely deployed 4G. A key challenge that brownfield operators face is the lack of interoperability between legacy RAN interfaces and open RAN solutions.

Despite this challenge, a number of mo­bile network operators throughout the world, including many brownfield networks, are trialling and deploying open RAN technology. As per the Dell’Oro Gr­­o­up, the increase in open RAN telecom ge­ar revenues can be attributed to bro­wnfield developments in North Ame­ri­ca. Ac­cor­ding to their report, open RAN revenues in the region have increa­sed four-fold, year-on-year. Meanwhile, North America and the Asia Pacific drove over 95 per cent of the open RAN market in the second quarter of 2022. The report further stated that Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC were the top three revenue drivers in the first half of 2022. Moreover, the Dell’Oro Group forecasts that open RAN revenues will more than double during 2022, and it is projected to account for over 5 per cent of the overall RAN market in 2022.

Cloud-native open RAN

There are certain key components that help drive the deployment of open RAN. One such core component is the cloud. Cloud-native 4G/5G networks based on open RAN are gaining traction among op­erators across the globe. Cloudification in­volves hardware and software disaggregation. It uses RAN applications as cloud-native functions.

Since open RAN allows operators to decouple software from hardware, it facilitates the migration to a cloud-native model. The key functionality is provided by containerised network functions – software that run on virtually any consumer, off-the-shelf server. This is important, be­cause the resulting cloud-native model enables workflow orchestration and network automation to deploy, scale and heal without intervention.

Network architecture

Open RAN has cloud embedded in its architecture, in the form of a cloud computing platform made up of physical infrastructure nodes using open architecture. It also creates and hosts the various virtual network functions used by RAN intelligent controllers and other infrastructure elements. Moreover, cloud RAN is a virtualised RAN designed to be cloud-native. It is built with future-proof architecture, and incorporates key elements such as micro­services and containerisation. A secure, modern cloud-native implementation of open RAN would rely on securing the un­derlying microservices-based architecture.

Network transformation strategies

While deploying open RAN, telecom operators need to undergo significant tra­nsformations across the network. These network transformations involve making the network more software-driven and in­­­teroperable among multivendor equip­me­nt suppliers, across different generations of networks. By adopting open ar­chitecture, telecom companies can ensure that more efficient equipment from different vendors enters the fray, and helps telcos reduce their costs. Further, open RAN all­ows standardisation of the network infrastructure, making it cheaper and easier for telecom companies to im­plement network changes.

Apart from interoperability and disaggregation of hardware and software, open RAN helps inculcate self-healing and self-configuration properties across the network. It also makes deployments cloud-na­tive, thereby enabling easy and affordable maintenance and upgradation to any fu­ture technology, resulting in a potential cost reduction of up to 30 per cent.

This means that telcos no longer need to add a new layer for a new technology. They can upgrade the network simply by executing a software upgrade, eliminating the need for site visits and making it ex­tre­m­ely easy for service providers to in­trodu­ce new products and services for their subscribers.

Infrastructure interoperability

The adoption of a common open standard enables telecom operators to save on infrastructure costs by streamlining their dep­loy­ments, and providing better coverage at a much lower energy consumption rate. Cloud/centralised RAN (C-RAN) ac­hieves interoperability by leveraging ad­van­cements in wireless technology and in­for­mation technology network infrastructure. Rather than using a smaller cluster of cellular base stations, C-RAN uses dense wavelength division multiplexing to broa­d­cast over vast distances to a single centralised tower. This allows for connectivity across multiple vendor devices over lar­ge geographic areas.

Opportunities and outlook

Net net, stakeholders across the telecom domain believe that the future will be dominated by open networks. As more and more telcos warm up to the deployment of open networks, the world is going to witness increased deployment of the best ty­pes of wireless networks, which can be deployed faster and at lower costs, thus hel­ping operators deliver state-of-the-art broadband services across the globe.

Further, as 5G becomes the new tech­no­logical norm across the globe, the hope is that open RAN will become the de facto standard. However, this open network ex­pansion will depend on the continued gro­wth of a healthy ecosystem, which wo­uld require adding new suppliers and innovations to this developing market.

On the cloud front, the involvement of big public cloud providers or hyperscalers is going to be an enormous gamechanger in favour of open RAN. Hyperscalers or cloud giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have already started partnering with telecom operators, and these partnerships will continue in 2022 and beyond.

By simultaneously delivering open RAN management software and hosting the RAN network software, public cloud providers could become very valuable par­t­­ners to operators. However, it needs to be borne in mind that real-time telecommunication transactions must happen at the cell site, whereas non-real time transactions can happen on the cloud.

Moreover, increasing adoption of private networks is also going to be an up­coming trend in the open RAN market. While open RAN brings a variety of different options for operators, private net­wo­rks can go a step further. As countries start to encourage the deployment of private networks, open RAN-based solutions are ready to take full advantage of this opportunity. With many small cell and re­mote radio head players, there will be a va­riety of options available to small enterpri­ses and large indoor/outdoor hybrid priva­te networks. In addition, cloud-native sol­utions will allow enterprises to take advantage of hyperscalers for deploying infrastructure software as well as for edge computing. As a result, this large ecosystem will create many options for enterprises, making open RAN architecture well suited for private networks as well.