Shared radio access network (RAN) solutions are gaining traction across the globe. Recently, RailTel and CloudExtel, a full stack network solutions player in India, partnered to launch India’s first shared RAN solution for congested locations with the objective of enhancing the telecom user experience in such stressed locations. The pilot project, launched at Mumbai Central railway station, demonstrated a 20 per cent increase in data consumption. Further, the average user speed experience increased fivefold to 15 Mbps for both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea Limited. In an interview with tele.net, Kunal Bajaj, chief executive officer and founder, CloudExtel, shared his views on how critical shared RAN solutions are in the 5G era, and the business model and other characteristics of these solutions. Edited excerpts…
What are shared RAN solutions? Why are they critical for the success of 5G services, particularly in stressed network locations?
Currently, all networks deployed by mobile network operators (MNOs) are standalone. So, each operator installs, integrates and operates independent network infrastructure. In a shared RAN deployment, more than 70 per cent of the capex can be shared between operators. This leads to lower capex requirement for each operator and a reduced site footprint, while maintaining operator-specific settings for their respective networks. In dense urban areas, there is a continuous requirement of greater capacity. There are also site acquisition and space limitations. In 5G, the density of sites is going to increase tremendously. Shared RAN will be the perfect way to help operators reduce their capex and provide capacity offload solutions with reduced footprints.
What is the business model for shared RAN as a solution?
A network-as-a-service (NaaS) company, such as CloudExtel, invests in the capex, deploys the network, integrates it with the operator’s core network, and provides a seamless solution to customers. In such deployments, the installation, integration and operation of the active and passive elements of the network are done by the NaaS company. The NaaS company can run their own network operations centre as well for such deployments, as in the case of CloudExtel. Mobile operators are like tenants for this service, leasing access and capacity from the NaaS company.
What is the working mechanism for shared RAN solutions? Does it use the same spectrum as telcos? How is the amplification carried out at stressed locations?
In a shared RAN solution, the spectrum is owned by the operators and emitted to connect to and serve their customers.
The signal, which is carried from the core network of the operator, is interconnected with our shared access network. This access network can be deployed closer to customers and deeper within the intended traffic areas using a common infrastructure for all MNOs, thus bringing control of the active layer closer to where the end customers are served.
What would be the impact on data consumption if shared RAN solutions are opted for in 5G deployments?
Data consumption in a country like India is going to see multilevel growth, year on year. This is due to the expected emergence of several data-heavy applications under 5G, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, real-time high definition and 3D gaming, etc. Other Web 3.0 and metaverse applications are also gaining popularity. Enterprise applications such as remote surgery, automated driving cars, etc., have been in testing for a long time. To support these, a combination of all solutions will be required.
Do you see shared RAN impacting telcos’ ARPU levels?
While 5G is expected to help telcos enhance ARPUs, shared RAN will lower an operator’s costs for delivering each GB of data to its customers.
CloudExtel recently conducted a successful pilot test for shared RAN services at Mumbai Central railway station. What are your plans with RailTel in terms of future expansion of these services?
CloudExtel has partnered with RailTel for nine stations from Churchgate to Dadar on the Western Line, including two long distance train stations. In the next few months, we will deploy networks across all these nine stations. Subsequently, through collaboration with RailTel and the railways, this deployment will be further expanded to all stations in Mumbai.
Apart from railways, what are the other stressed network locations that CloudExtel is looking to serve?
Large venues and in-building service areas are further examples of places where this solution can be deployed. It is also apt for dense traffic areas such as road junctions and outdoor public spaces across the country.