Amidst the burgeoning deployment of 5G, telcos across the globe are moving beyond siloed legacy network architecture to adopt new-age, virtualised and software-centric open radio access network (ORAN) architecture. The move towards ORAN architecture is driven by the numerous benefits it offers to telecom service providers (TSPs). Not only does ORAN enable a more vibrant ecosystem, network simplification and a reduction of capital and operational expenses, it also empowers TSPs to cost-effectively enhan­ce network performance.

Owing to the rising move towards these architectures, the cumulative ORAN revenue is projected to be as high as $15 billion between 2020 and 2025, as per a report by the Dell’Oro Group. The report further states that ORAN is likely to account for over 10 per cent of the overall RAN market by 2025.

Further, telcos are turning to cloud-native ORAN to enable automated 5G networks. This is likely to provide a huge im­petus to ORAN adoption, thereby un­loc­king exciting new opportunities for stakeholders across the telecom value chain.

Adoption trends

ORAN has been touted as a promising technology for a few years now. However, its deployment has been slow. As of Dec­ember 2022, there are around 35 active ORAN deployments across the globe. Of these, many are mobile network operators testing ORAN in greenfield, rural and emerging markets. In 2023, research suggests that ORAN is expected to account for 6-10 per cent of the global RAN market.

In India too, telcos have started moving towards ORAN adoption. For instan­ce, Reliance Jio has deployed its own 5G ORAN solution in several cities. Bharti Airtel is conducting trials for 4G and 5G ORAN solutions at select sites in Haryana. The telco plans to commercially deploy the solutions across multiple locations in India over the next few quarters. More­over, Airtel has partnered with Meta to jointly work on increasing the operational efficiency of ORAN. Vodafone Idea Li­mited has also conducted trials for ORAN technology.

Characteristics of cloud-native ORAN

Cloud technology is a core component of ORAN deployment by telcos. For telcos, cloudification essentially means hosting network resources and services on the clo­ud. Cloud technology provides interesting possibilities to complement the existing tri­ed-and-tested technologies in the RAN do­main. A modern, cloud-native implementation of ORAN would secure the un­derlying microservices-based architecture.

Further, cloud-native ORAN solutions enable workflow orchestration and network automation, which are required for the simplification of network management and to ensure the scalability and agility of operati­ons. They offer long-term benefits for mo­bile network operators, including zero-touch provisioning, continuous integration/continuous delivery, and artificial inte­lligence- and machine learning-enabled net­work monitoring and optimisation.

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

According to a recent report by Cap­gemini Research Institute, telcos in the Asia-Pacific region are expected to invest $1.03 billion in the cloud on an average over the next three-five years. Further, the report expects telcos of all sizes to invest 38-44 per cent of their network transformation budgets in the telco cloud. As per the report, on an average, telcos will gain $370 million-$590 million in yearly benefits against an average investment of $206 million in the telco cloud. The report also highlights that one of the key opportunities offered by the transition to the telco cloud is the deployment of ORAN architecture, which has the potential to unlock innovation and uncover new revenue opportunities.

  A modern, cloud-native implementation of ORAN would secure the underlying microservices-based architecture.

Network architecture and transformation strategies

Open RAN has the 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, and is built with future-proof architecture. It incorporates key elements such as mi­cro­services and containerisation. A secure, modern, cloud-native im­p­lementation of ORAN would first ensure that the underlying microservices-based architecture is secure.

While deploying ORAN, telecom ope­rators need to undergo significant transformations across their networks. 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 the propagation of more efficient equipment from different vendors, helping telcos reduce their costs. Further, ORAN 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, ORAN 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 new layers for new technologies. They can improve their networks simply by executing software upgrades, eliminating the need for site visits and making it extremely easy for service providers to introduce new products and services for their subscribers.

Interoperability of infrastructure

The adoption of ORAN also enables telecom operators to save on infrastructure costs by streamlining 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 a large geographic area.

  The involvement of big public cloud providers or hyperscalers will be an enormous game changer in favour of ORAN.

Opportunities and outlook

In terms of deployment, ORAN technology is still in its infancy. It may take three to five years for the technology to fully ma­ture and see wide-scale adoption. No­ne­theless, stakeholders across the telecom do­main believe that the future will be dominated by open networks.

As 5G becomes the new technological norm across the globe, the hope is that ORAN 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 game changer in favour of ORAN. Hyperscalers, or cloud giants such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have already started partnering with telecom operators, and these partnerships will continue in 2023 and beyond.

Moreover, the increasing adoption of private networks is going to become a trend in the ORAN market. While ORAN 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, ORAN-based solutions will be ready to take full advantage of this opportunity. As a result, this large ecosystem will create many options for enterprises, making ORAN architecture well suited for private networks.