Apr 30, 2021 Telecom

5G RAN Evolution: Our Map Marker on the Journey

By Nermin Mohamed


In this three-part series, we’ll be exploring the intersection of 5G and RAN. This first blog examines the state of the RAN market and how RAN is evolving into ORAN.

With the advent of 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT), the pressure on wireless networks is growing exponentially. As more end users join the network, the pressure to find fast and cost-effective RAN (radio access network) solutions is also growing. Expanding large networks using traditional RAN is expensive, so many operators are looking at options like virtualized RAN (vRAN) and open RAN. Let’s take a look at why these two new technologies are catching the attention of operators worldwide.

Traditional RAN

In a traditional RAN, operators deploy networks using fully integrated cell sites, where the radios, hardware and software are provided by a single supplier as a closed, proprietary solution and the software-driven functionality is tightly integrated inside the hardware. Making any upgrades or changes to the wireless network, even seemingly minor ones, requires replacing physical hardware throughout the network—a costly, manual, and time-consuming process. Moreover, the proprietary nature of the system locks operators into a single vendor relationship rather than being able to swap out parts to take advantage of newer technologies or cost savings.

As networks have expanded, operators have been making changes to legacy RAN solutions to become more open. However, these solutions are still proprietary and vender-locked, with minimal support for virtualized deployments and little interoperability with other solutions.

The open RAN difference

To put it simply, open RAN defines a new set of technical specifications for hardware and software within the radio system. Those specifications are driven by two key concepts: virtualization and openness.

Virtual RAN does two very important things: it separates software from hardware and it moves computing from purpose-built, location-specific hardware to the cloud. This programmable RAN infrastructure, built with low-cost, general-purpose hardware means operators can use one virtualized baseboard unit to support multiple radios instead of needing a proprietary, physical unit at every cell site. Virtualization also means operators can introduce and administer software-based RAN services without being forced to replace the underlying hardware.

Open RAN takes virtualization one step further. It not only separates software from hardware infrastructure, but it also replaces the proprietary communication interfaces between the centralized unit (CU), the distributed unit (DU), and the radio units (RUs) with open, standards-based interfaces. This enables operators to source radio and baseband hardware and software components from different vendors, choosing the best on offer to create powerful, vendor-agnostic systems.

The O-RAN Alliance (supporting the O-RAN specification) and the Telecom Infrastructure Project (with the OpenRAN specification, not to be confused with our use of open RAN in this blog series) both promote reference architectures, standards, and protocols that aim to lower the barriers to entry and give operators a wider pool of suppliers and tools. Wind River is deeply involved with the O-RAN Alliance, including contributing both StarlingX and Yocto Linux to the effort. We view our collaboration with the open RAN community as key to the future of 5G open RAN technology, well worth our investment in time, people, and software.

On the rise: open RAN is experiencing growth

Open RAN is definitely gaining momentum. ABI Research predicts that total spending on open RAN radio units for public outdoor (macro cell) networks will reach $69.5bn by 2030, while enterprise indoor (small cell) networks could reach $39.8bn by then.[i]

In the short term, Omdia forecasts that open RAN is likely to generate $3 billion in yearly revenue by 2024, or about 9% of the total 4G and 5G market. Another study, this by the Dell'Oro Group, predicts that worldwide open RAN revenues will grow at double-digit rates over the next six years. That’s not surprising, considering that Heavy Reading recently published a survey showing that 29% of telcos expect to be fully deployed in vRAN in less than three years, on what has typically been a ten-year life cycle.[ii] Operators are committing to massive investments with very short timelines because of the enormous potential of open RAN.

Current market status

The market opportunity for open RAN has so far been largely driven by greenfield deployment, primarily in rural areas and with private 5G. The bigger market opportunity is obviously with brownfield deployments, but this takes more time to accomplish since operators have to integrate open RAN into legacy systems without affecting performance. It may take three to five years for open RAN technology to fully mature, but adoption should accelerate rapidly, due to the open design and to the economic and competitive forces driving 5G market growth. The open RAN market has the potential to grow substantially, from 1% of the total RAN market today to 10% by 2025[iii].

Telcos worldwide are diving into open RAN. Vodafone UK, a traditionally brownfield operator, has partnered with Parallel Wireless to announce its first live open RAN 4G site. In the US, Verizon is the first operator to deploy vRAN, enabled by our own Wind River Studio. Worldwide, operators including Dish Network (US), Deutsche Telekom (Germany), Orange and Turkcell (EU), and Telefonica (Spain) are testing and moving to deploy open RAN.

With vender-agnostic standards and a choice of hardware and software, open RAN technology has the opportunity to redefine network infrastructure and change how operators and suppliers design, build and deploy new networks. Fast, efficient, and cost-effective, open RAN networks are one way that networks are evolving to meet the complex and constant demands of 21st century connectivity.

In the second part of this blog series, we’ll take a deep dive into the benefits and challenges of moving to open RAN-based 5G networks.

[i] Computer Weekly.com, Maturing O-RAN Market Set to Have 75% Market Share by 2030, October 2020

[ii] Heavy Reading, Heavy Reading report: 5G Edge Cloud Infrastructure: For vRAN, Industrial, and Automotive Applications, March 2020

[iii] Deloitte.com, The next-generation radio access network: Open and virtualized RANs are the future of mobile networks, Dec 2020

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