Anchored in virtualisation and standardisation, the open radio access network (O-RAN) is one of the technological trends with the potential to reshape the telecom industry. Globally, the telecom industry is witnessing an increased uptake of O-RAN in network deployments, given the plethora of benefits that the technology offers over legacy radio access networks. By disaggregating the hardware and software elements of networks, O-RAN allows technology products from different vendors to coexist with various software platforms, thereby reducing operators’ dependency on a single vendor. Opening up RAN horizontally brings in a new range of low-cost radio players, and gives mobile operators a choice to optimise deployment options for specific performance requirements at a much lower cost.
Key enabler of 5G
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 the accelerated deployment of 5G infrastructure, O-RAN is becoming increasingly critical for telecom service providers. As 5G services will be used for a wide variety of use cases across multiple industries, the associated network topology and requirements such as throughput, latency and simultaneous connections will depend on each use case. To this end, O-RAN offers the advantage of combining components from a diversified supply chain to effectively accommodate multiple use cases.
Further, by enabling operators to increase the number of their 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 their performance and unlocking new 5G capabilities.
Open interfaces enable the development of third-party artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) driven solutions. O-RAN also holds the potential to enable telecom operators to leverage information from data traffic on their networks. This is likely to be useful in the case of 5G and IoT devices powered by 5G where a huge volume of data will be generated, opening up the possibility to derive several useful insights.
Cloudification and O-RAN
Cloudification is a core component of O-RAN networks. Cloudification is becoming increasingly crucial for telcos to cut IT operating costs. For telcos, cloudification essentially means hosting or using network resources and services from the cloud. They could be private, public or hybrid. There are various levels of cloudification, such as cloud-enabled, wherein some services continue using legacy systems while others are provided through the cloud; cloud-based, wherein the entire network is in the cloud; or cloud-native, wherein services are built in the cloud.
Cloud technology provides interesting possibilities to complement the existing tried and trusted technologies in the RAN domain. A modern cloud-native implementation of O-RAN would secure the underlying microservices-based architecture. To this end, O-RAN networks have O-cloud embedded in their architecture. A cloud-native O-RAN solution enables workflow orchestration and network automation, which is required for the simplification of network management and to ensure the scalability and agility of operations. It offers long-term benefits for mobile network operators (MNOs), including zero-touch provisioning, continuous integration/continuous delivery, AI- and ML-enabled network monitoring and optimisation.
Industry adoption trends
The telecom operators globally 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. O-RAN is also slowly becoming the technology of choice for operators for 5G network roll-outs. In terms of global regions, Asia Pacific is expected to dominate the O-RAN market with a nearly 35 per cent share in 2030. As per industry reports, the O-RAN market in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $11.5 billion by 2030, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 34 per cent between 2022 and 2030.
Recently, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has tested an O-RAN based 5G field trial conducted by Bharti Airtel. The test was conducted using the 3500 MHz band spectrum allotted to Airtel by DoT’s Wireless Planning and Coordination Wing. During the test, speeds of more than 1 Gbps were validated in a non-standalone 5G mode using commercially available compatible mobile devices. Prior to this, Airtel also conducted an O-RAN based live 5G network validation in partnership with Mavenir over the 3500 MHz band test spectrum.
Further, the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT), the research and development arm of DoT, has partnered with Galore Networks for collaborative development of end-to-end 5G RAN products and solutions to boost indigenous development of 5G. This collaborative approach is aimed at facilitating the evolution of mutually productive and sustainable alliances. Besides, C-DoT has signed an agreement with VVDN Technologies and IIT Hyderabad-incubated startup WiSig Networks to develop 5G O-RAN products and other equipment.
In a similar move, Sterlite Technologies Limited has collaborated with Analog Devices, Inc. to develop 5G O-RAN radio units (O-RU). Together, the two companies aim to build 5G-ready solutions to expand the diversity of commercially available O-RUs and facilitate the growth of O-RAN networks. Also, Mavenir has collaborated with Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. to expand its OpenBeam, the O-RAN portfolio of 5G radio units (RU) spanning categories ranging from mmWave to massive multiple-in multiple-out with 64T64R capabilities and 8T8R radios to drive the transition towards modern networks. By working together, the two companies aim to proliferate O-RAN globally, with transformative solutions, and enable flexible network deployments to serve the diverse needs of companies and operators across 5G.
Concerns towards O-RAN
Though O-RAN technology is fast emerging as a promising alternative to traditional RAN architecture, especially in the 5G world, the technology brings in certain challenges as well. O-RAN creates multi-vendor environments, which require integration between different software modules or between software and hardware solutions, thereby increasing the complexity of system integration. Meanwhile, maintenance and network operations, in general, can initially become complex by the increased number of vendors required to deploy a single site. A new technical team profile is required for moving from hardware towards a software-centric and virtualised environment.
Besides, a common concern relates to the technology maturity of O-RAN solutions as compared to traditional architectures deployed widely across highly densified and demanding networks. Given the fact that under O-RAN telecom networks will deploy 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. In addition, the increasing operator expenses on testing in a multivendor environment are 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.
The way forward
Although the technology is still at a nascent stage and is yet to achieve mass commercialisation, recent advances are expected to give a major boost to its adoption. Given the potential benefits of O-RAN technology, telecom operators around the world have announced plans to switch from legacy RAN to a more efficient network architecture. Besides enhancing operational efficiency, the use of these technologies is helping operators make their networks more intelligent and scalable.
Further, by increasing the number of network infrastructure partners, O-RAN is helping operators build better and more cost-effective 5G networks. According to industry estimates, operators can save up to 40-50 per cent on their capex and 30-40 per cent on their opex by using O-RAN frameworks. In India, every telco is not only a telecom service provider but is becoming a digital service provider, which is where O-RAN is poised to play a significant role. The technology is trusted to eventually become a game changer in the telecom industry with the roll-out of 5G service.