Open radio access network (O-RAN) technology is fast emerging as a promising alternative to 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. Moreover, network equipment vendors stand to gain from the proliferation of O-RAN, since its deployment opens up market participation and lowers the barriers to entry. Further, be­cau­se of its interoperability, vendors can develop products for use by multiple operators instead of having to create customised solutions for a specific operator.

As the technology achieves further co­mmercialisation, the ensuing flexibility of using solutions from multiple vendors is likely to spur competition amongst network equipment providers and reduce the total cost of deployment. The total cost of ownership of traditional RAN accounts for 65-70 per cent of a mobile network’s total cost. According to industry estimates, op­erators can save up to 40-50 per cent on their capital expenditure (capex) and 30-40 per cent on operational expenditure (opex) by using O-RAN frameworks. Given the pot­ential benefits of O-RAN, telecom op­erators, globally, have announced plans to switch from traditional RAN to more flexible network architectures.

Facilitator in 5G roll-out

5G offers a perfect opportunity to mobile network operators (MNOs) to move away from hardware-centric monolithic networks to more agile, flexible and programmable ones. While O-RAN can be used in all networks from 2G to 5G, it is a must-have for the latter, as the technology dema­nds a fundamentally different app­roach to network architecture. With ultra-high speed broadband and extremely low latency, 5G is an enabler of several new use cases such as remote surgery, autonomous driving, immersive education, cloud gaming, smart cities and Industry 4.0. An O-RAN that connects to 5G standalone (SA) is ideal for new applications, as it provides extreme reliability, improves latency and allows a larger number of people and devi­ces to use mobile data at the same time.

As 5G services will be used for a wide variety of activities across multiple industries, the associated network topology and requirements such as throughput, latency and simultaneous connections will vary ac­­c­ording to the use case. To this end, O-RAN offers the advantage of combining components from a diversified supply ch­ain to effectively accommodate multiple use cases.

The year 2022 is expected to witness a big uptick in the number of MNOs transitioning to 5G SA, and several 5G use cases will start to become mainstream. Research by the Global Mobile Suppliers Associa­tion (GSA) has identified 97 MNOs that are investing in 5G SA (including those that are evaluating/testing, piloting, planning and deploying, as well as those that have al­ready launched 5G SA networks), as of November 2021. Further, the GSA has categorised 20 MNOs as having deplo­yed/ launched 5G SA in public networ­ks. By enabling operators to increase their number of network infrastructure partners, O-RAN is expected to help build better and more cost-effective 5G networks. More­over, using O-RAN, telecom operators can create fully virtualised infrastructure capable of delivering critical 5G-based services. O-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.

Stakeholders jump onto the O-RAN bandwagon

Telecom operators in India are warming up to the idea of O-RAN as they endeavour to reduce their network deployment costs and prepare for the launch of 5G services. In a major move, Bharti Airtel conducted India’s first O-RAN-based live 5G network validation in partnership with Ma­venir in April 2022. Airtel had, in Nov­ember 2021, partnered with the vendor for O-RAN-based 5G field trials in the mmWave and mid-bands at Chandi­ga­rh tri-city. The recent O-RAN-based 5G validation was conduc­ted over the 3500 MHz band test spectrum allotted to Airtel by the Department of Te­le­communi­ca­tions. Sp­ee­ds of over 1 Gbps were validated with the equipment deploy­ed and configured in non-SA (NSA) mode, using co­mmercially available 5G mobile devices.

Reaffirming its commitment to an open technology approach, Airtel recently an­nounced a strategic alliance with the Tata Group to build 5G networks based on O-RAN technology, in order to roll out products and solutions, initially for India and subsequently for the rest of the world. In 2021, Airtel entered into a partnership with Intel to develop a 5G network by leveraging 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.

Meanwhile, 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 in order to support its 5G network for various use cases including fixed wireless access. According to the company, this switch to O-RAN will help it of­fer more innovative solutions to its customers in an increasingly hyper connected environment.

Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) 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. HCL Technologies recently launched a 5G O-RAN lab in India that will enable global telecom industry players to transition to 5G networks. Sterlite Te­ch­no­logies Limited also became an O-RAN All­iance contributor to build near-real-time controllers for 5G. Recently, it partnered with Analog Devices to develop 5G O-RAN radio units.

Further, Himachal Futuristic Commu­nications Limited (HFCL) has joined the O-RAN Alliance. As a member, HFCL will focus on contributing to standards th­at ensure a true open and multivendor RAN network, with emphasis on front haul, beamforming, near real time ran in­te­­lligent controller, service management and orchestration, and end-to-end test sp­e­cifications. In a similar move towards op­en network architecture, VVDN Tech­no­logies has announced the ope­ning of a new end-to-end 5G testing lab for O-RAN-based radio unit devices in India.

Challenges and the way forward

O-RAN architecture has opened doors for 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, up from less than 1 per cent at present.

However, when planning the deployment and management of networks based on O-RAN architecture, the most pressing concerns for operators would be ensuring interoperability, manageability, optimisation and end-to-end performance in a multivendor environment. Moreover, the­re is a possibility of encountering incompa­tible con­figurations due to the multiple po­ssible co­mbinations of software and ha­rd­wa­re. Besides operators’ expenses on testing be­ing increased 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 controlled and managed environments.

Transitioning to O-RAN is a significant step, but there are certainly trade-offs to consider. O-RAN ecosystems cou­ld lower the total cost of ownership, im­prove flexibility and reduce expenses, but there is also the potential for increa­sed complexity, which must be properly ad­d­ressed to guarantee a flawless user ex­pe­rience. Net, net, O-RAN seems to be a good bet for stepping into the 5G world. For telecom players, it lowers capex and opex, and brings in greater 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.