O-RAN (open radio access network) is a term used for industry-wide standards for RAN interfaces that support interoperation between vendors’ equipment and offer network flexibility at a lower cost. Owing to this, and many other advantages, the technology is fast emerging as a promising alternative to the traditional RAN architecture, especially in the 5G world. O-RAN plays a critical role in bringing more diversity and innovation to the 5G ecosystem. In particular, O-RAN solutions are expected to reshape the mobile network ecosystem in the 5G era, by bringing more equipment vendors into the ecosystem and enabling the adoption of more open source and cloud technologies. This will also accelerate the adoption of more innovative technologies.

Vendor heterogeneity

By disaggregating hardware and software elements of networks, O-RAN allows technology products from different vendors to co-exist with various software platforms, thereby reducing operators’ dependency on a single vendor. Disaggregation is ess­en­tial for 5G deployment and evolution and enables mobile operators to open the RAN network and leverage multi-vendor solutions. Further, O-RAN provides new avenues for RAN customisation and flexibility that are commensurate with the di­ver­sity of 5G use cases and requirements.

Besides, O-RAN empowers operators to utilise best-of-breed components, based on their individual network use case profile. This opens up opportunities to reduce growth cycles by developing different parts of the network separately while harnessing more innovation horsepower collectively.

Under the traditional RAN, operators followed a hardware-driven approach of de­ploying an additional layer to the network every time a new technology emerg­ed. This required operators to invest substantially every few years to upgrade their networks. By obviating the need to replace the entire network gear to introduce new solutions, O-RAN can help operators lower their time-to-market and hence, facilitate innovations in the industry.

Cost-benefit approach

The total cost of ownership of a traditional RAN accounts for 65-70 per cent of a mobile network’s total cost. The introduction of new players and deployment of commercial off-the-shelf hardware and open-source software is expected to bring down the capital expenditure (capex) and operational expenditure (opex) for network operators. According to industry estimates, operators can save up to 40-50 per cent on their capex and 30-40 per cent on opex by using O-RAN frameworks. Such cost benefit plays a pivotal role in the large-scale adoption and proliferation of 5G networks.

In terms of hardware, centralisation and virtualisation can reduce deployment, operation and maintenance costs of the ph­ysical equipment at base stations. By consolidating baseband processing, O-RAN deploys lower volumes of expensive physical kits than legacy RAN and improv­es en­ergy efficiency by eliminating under-used capacity of idle network equipment and implementing centralised manageme­nt tools. The interoperability of O-RAN co­mponents further allows telcos to de­ploy to varied sites in a resource-efficient manner be­­cause the same virtualised baseband uni­ts (vBBUs) can interchange bet­ween ra-dio type (macro, small, micro cells), vendor, mobile generation, or spectrum.

New revenue opportunity

O-RAN opens new avenues of service innovation and agility for telcos by breaking the RAN up into component parts, each of which can be separately reconfigured. O-RAN standards are freely accessible to all third-party software developers, who can develop new types of services and in­­novate on the RIC (RAN intelligent controller) by building xApps and rApps. This enables telcos to make their networks much more relevant resources for both en­terprise and consumer applications.

Meanwhile, telcos can customise RAN hardware and software in an O-RAN de­ployment to deliver bespoke features ba­sed on the enterprise use case and the deployment scenario. For instance, telcos may incorporate additional security or system integration with a management layer. As the network architecture is software-based, operators can prioritise specific locations with targeted upgrades without requiring a massive macro-level licence upgrade.

The disaggregation of the RAN has also added further advantages by enabling better network slicing and edge compute capabilities. O-RAN deployments at the net­work edge can be beneficial to some ap­p­lications, such as internet of things (IoT) and connected cars. With a disaggregated network in O-RAN, computing po­wer can be pushed to the edge of the cloud, while other processes remain at the core. Edge computing, along with network slicing, will allow a mobile network operator to design and provision the network based on end-user application. This will open up a world of new 5G use cases in sectors such as security, gaming, healthcare, autonomous cars and smart cities.

Telcos switching to O-RAN

Telecom operators in India are warming up to the idea of O-RAN as they look to re­duce their network deployment costs and prepare for the launch of 5G services. For instance, Reliance Jio Infocomm Li­mited is using its indigenously developed O-RAN architecture and is testing its 5G O-RAN solution in several cities. Its parent company, Jio Platforms, has partnered with chipmakers Qualcomm and NXP to make virtualised RAN and small cells to su­pport its 5G network for various use cases including FWA (fixed wireless acc­ess). This switch to O-RAN, as per the company, will help it offer more innovative solutions to its customers in an inc­re­asingly hyper-connected environment.

Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel recently an­no­un­ced a strategic alliance with the Tata Group to build 5G networks based on O-RAN technology, to roll out products and solutions initially for India and take it to the world subsequently. The year 2021 also observed Airtel entering into partnership with Intel to develop 5G network by leveraging vRAN (virtualised RAN) and O-RAN technologies. The operator also ho­sted the O-RAN Alliance Global Plug­Fest 2021 at its network experience centre in Manesar (Gurugram). The event was orga­nised in partnership with Indian and global technology companies. This was the second O-RAN Alliance Global PlugFest that Airtel has hosted in the country. Reaffir­ming its commitment to open technology approach, the company, in Novem­ber 2021, partnered with Mave­nir for O-RAN-based 5G field trials in the mmWave and mid-band at Chandigarh tri-city.

Vodafone Idea Limited is also focusing on O-RAN for its future 5G networ­ks. At present, the operator has been le­veraging Mavenir’s O-RAN solutions to scale up 4G adoption.

Besides telecom operators, equipment vendors are seeing a huge potential in this market. A number of vendors are working with Indian operators and system integrators to build and operate O-RAN-based networks.

Challenges and future outlook

O-RAN architecture has opened the door for the Indian software companies, equipment-makers and system integrators to capture a piece of the global 5G market. O-RAN is gaining traction as 5G roll-out picks up pace and operators look to lower their capex and opex amidst rising capital intensity and subdued subscriber and revenue growth. According to industry estimates, O-RAN revenues will constitute 10 per cent or more of the overall RAN market by 2025 from less than 1 per cent at present.

Given the fact that with O-RAN, telecom networks will comprise solutions from multiple vendors, it will become cha­llenging for both operators and equipment manufacturers to ensure interoperability, manageability, optimisation and end-to-end performance of disparate components. Moreover, there is a possibility of encountering incompatible configurations from multiple possible combinations of software and hardware. Besides increasing operators’ expenses on testing in a mul­tive­ndor en­vironment, troubleshooting is likely to become difficult as operators will re­quire vendor-independent validation and troubleshooting to resolve network perform­ance issues, which might not be the case in traditional single-vendor networks. To this end, the industry has taken several initiatives such as forming alliances of vendors and operators to test and validate interoperability in a controlled and managed environment.

Net, net, O-RAN seems to be a good bet for stepping into the 5G world. For telecom players, it lowers capex and opex, brings in more efficiency and innovative solutions with quicker deployment of 5G. For system integrators, it is a way of expanding their reach globally. And for software developers, it is an opportunity to build “Make in India” solutions for the global market.