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.