Over the past few years, open radio access network (RAN) has emerged as a buzzword in the global telecom space. The concept of building open RAN has caught the eye of key telecom operators, equipment manufacturers, start-ups and other stakeholders, who have started collaborating to form new telecom groups such as the OpenRAN project, O-RAN Alliance and Open RAN Policy Coalition. These groups aim to promote collaboration and build open, programmable networks that are agile and flexible enough to facilitate innovative use cases in the 5G era. Owing to this push, global telecom behemoths such as Rakuten, the Vodafone Group and Etisalat have started exploring the technology to modernise their networks. Going forward, the concept of building open RAN will hold the key to building more virtualised and automated networks in the 5G world.

A look at why open RAN is slowly becoming the new normal in the telecom space and the promise it holds for the industry…

Benefits over traditional RAN

Traditionally, telcos followed a hardware-driven approach of adding an additional layer to the network every time a new technology emerged. This approach required telcos to invest substantially every few years to upgrade their networks. Lately, telcos have started realising the limitations of this approach. For one, it is money intensive. Moreover, it requires telcos to be dependent on a few vendors for their network infrastructure and equipment with little scope for adopting new, innovative and more cost-effective ways of deploying and managing networks.

In this scenario, open RAN has emerged as a technology of choice for telecom operators. Unlike traditional RAN, open RAN decouples hardware and software; this gives operators more flexibility to deploy and upgrade their network architecture. Decoupling the hardware and software functions reduces time to market, as it is quicker to deploy open networks as compared to traditional ones. Further, the technology is cost efficient as it reduces operators’ reliance on exclusive vendors and decreases the expenditure incurred on infrastructure. 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.

Other benefits of the technology include the development of future-proof networks so that operators do not have to replace their infrastructure but undertake a simple software upgrade. In addition, open RAN provides agility and scalability across all network components, allowing operators to deliver higher throughput without any coverage or capacity limitations. Network capacity augmentation and optimisation is also enhanced by the simplification of nodes and the usage of new automated methods and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

Role in facilitating 5G networks

Another major factor for the adoption of open RAN is its role in facilitating 5G networks. According to an industry report, 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 open architecture is used. Further, open RAN enables operators to increase the number of their network infrastructure partners, and deliver better and more cost-effective 5G network service. By adopting open infrastructure, which comprises open source software, non-proprietary hardware and multi-vendor collaboration, telecom operators can create a fully virtualised infrastructure capable of delivering critical 5G-based services. Open RAN can thus help operators to 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.

Alliances galore

Recognising the crucial role that open RAN can play in building future-ready networks, the operator community, vendors as well as other stakeholders are actively engaged in forming collaborative alliances to help drive the uptake of the technology. One of  these alliances is the OpenRAN Project Group, created by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which focuses on developing a vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology based on open interfaces and community-developed standards. Another such group is the O-RAN Alliance, which was founded by telecom operators to clearly define requirements and help build a supply chain ecosystem to realise the twin objectives of openness and intelligence. Members of the O-RAN Alliance include AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, Verizon and SK Telecom. In fact, in December 2018, India’s Reliance Jio also joined the O-RAN Alliance board. Apart from this, there is the Open vRAN initiative, which is backed by Cisco and was formed with a vision to accelerate the viability and adoption of open virtualised RAN (vRAN) solutions and ensure their extension to broader network architecture. Recently, a group of over 30 companies formed the Open RAN Policy Coalition to push governments to take measures for increasing the development and adoption of open RAN technology.

The formation of these industry bodies is a move in the right direction for quicker and easier development of specifications for open RAN that could, eventually, replace the existing ones. In fact, these organisations have also started forming partnerships within themselves to accelerate the process. For instance, TIP has collaborated with the O-RAN Alliance to jointly develop interoperable 5G open RAN solutions; the Open RAN Policy Coalition is actively involved with the GSMA and O-RAN Alliance and recently, the GSMA collaborated with the O-RAN Alliance. The main aim behind these collaborations is to help avoid fragmentation and accelerate the evolution of the industry towards a more intelligent, open, virtualised and fully interoperable RAN. This will help harmonise the open networking ecosystem by creating a roadmap for network solutions and make access networks as open and flexible as possible for new market entrants.

Telcos up their game

The formation of these organisations has prompted telcos across the globe to scale up the adoption of open RAN. In October 2019, Rakuten successfully implemented the world’s first virtualised and distributed open RAN in Japan. Another Japan-based operator, NTT DoCoMo recently launched pre-commercial 5G trials using open RAN fronthaul interfaces on a part of its network.  The UK-based Vodafone Group was among the first operators to announce trials for the deployment of open RAN in over 100 rural locations in the UK in October 2019. The operator has conducted extensive field trials in the UK with Mavenir and in Ireland with Parallel Wireless. Further, it has already tested the technology in parts of Turkey and South Africa, and is undertaking trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

In India too, Vodafone Idea Limited has been at the forefront in terms of open RAN deployments. The operator has been leveraging Mavenir’s open RAN solutions for 4G to scale up adoption. Another Indian operator, Bharti Airtel recently deployed Altiostar’s open vRAN solution across multiple cities in India.

In Europe, Telefonica recently announced its plans of conducting open RAN trials in Brazil, Germany, Spain and the UK. Ahead of these trials, the operator had entered into partnerships with Altiostar, Gigatera Communications, Intel, Supermicro and Xilinx, Inc., to foster the development of open RAN technologies in 4G and 5G.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Etisalat became the first operator to successfully launch open vRAN. The operator partnered with Altiostar, NEC, Cisco and other leading vRAN technology vendors for the deployment. In Africa, the MTN Group has deployed open RAN at over 200 commercial rural sites. It has partnered with VANU, Parallel Wireless and NuRAN Wireless for the deployment and its operations in Uganda and Guinea Conakry are already benefiting from this technology. The operator now plans to deploy open RAN at more than 5,000 sites in rural areas across its 21 areas of operation. In addition, Turkey-based telco Turkcell has joined hands with Mavenir to test and deploy an open vRAN system.

What lies ahead?

Even as open RAN deployments seem to be picking up pace across the globe, issues such as ensuring interoperability of networks and the possibility of telcos interchanging vendors’ software and hardware while being able to achieve the same performance remain unresolved. Since most operators are currently in the trialling phase, the industry would have to wait for commercial deployments to kick-start to take a call on these matters.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi