May 25, 2021 Telecom

5G RAN Evolution: Moving Forward

By Jeff Gowan

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In part one of this series, we examined the state of the RAN market and how RAN is evolving into open RAN. In this second part, we’re looking at the benefits and challenges of moving to open RAN-based 5G networks.

Open RAN can provide a fast and cost-effective way for operators to expand networks and meet the growing demand for connectivity, including the newer 5G capabilities. Deploying a purpose-built open RAN solution in the cloud can benefit operators in many ways.

The benefits of open RAN

The move to open RAN can greatly benefit the telecommunications market in many ways. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages of this new standard.

Vendor independence

With open RAN, operators can choose from many different suppliers and thus reduce their dependence on a single vendor and choose best-of-breed components that seamlessly integrate with each other. Operators can replace components as new technologies emerge, reducing time to market, which is a huge win for telcos. And, as we saw last year with the disruption of global supply chains, being able to source from a variety of vendors reduces the overall risk of expanding network infrastructure.

Total cost of ownership

The flexibility to choose hardware and eliminate vendor lock-in means lower cost of acquiring the RAN components. In addition, the cloud-native basis of open RAN means operators can leverage network automation and intelligent radio resource control to reduce the cost of upgrades and maintenance while reducing the complexity of day-to-day operations.

Future-proofing

Virtual architectures can future-proof investments in the physical network. Operators can use software to upgrade RAN features and functionality on the same physical infrastructure to keep pace with changing market conditions instead of having to rip out and replace whole physical systems.

Faster innovation

Instead of having to replace both hardware and software to introduce new features and functions, operators can perform software updates on cloud-based installations, massively shortening release cycles for both new features and upgrades. Remote management also removes the need to send out technicians for onsite integrations, further reducing the time, effort, and cost of launching new products and services.

Better customer experience

Open RAN offers operators additional opportunities to evolve from merely providing commoditized “dumb pipe” connectivity to delivering customized experiences for different types of users. For instance, operators could offer their manufacturing customers an ultra-reliable network optimized for near–real-time response for supporting factory robotics and automation. An energy producer might prefer a pervasive low-power wide-area network for widespread monitoring of assets such as gas pipelines or oil rigs.

The challenges of open RAN

Initial deployments of open RAN at cell sites and data centers are starting to see challenges emerge in real-world situations. While greenfield open RAN can start with a clean slate and utilize open software and hardware, brownfield deployments must often deal with hardware solutions that have evolved over time and are only now figuring out how to support virtual and cloud deployments. These solutions, however, are mostly not open or optimized, causing implementation issues that must be resolved as operators work to integrate open RAN into existing network infrastructure.

As the rollout of 5G networks has begun, operators are now facing the reality of supporting multiple generations of connectivity; 3G and 4G have huge installed bases. When scaling up to meet rising demand, operators must also keep on mind those customers on older equipment (or persuade them to move to 5G, not an easy task).

The open RAN ecosystem has just begun, compared to older technologies and standards. One concern is that manufacturing capability for open RAN hardware isn’t fully in place. Telcos may be wary of fully committing to open RAN if they can’t easily procure the necessary hardware from a solid supply chain. Also, until hardware manufacturing scales up, it may not be as economical as the current technologies, and that cost differential may discourage operators from moving to open RAN. The O-RAN Alliance and Open RAN groups, with their open standards, are working to lower the technical and cost barriers to 5G open RAN. This will hopefully enable a wider range of operators to participate in and accelerate the adoption of 5G.

Finally, some operators are concerned that open RAN may fall short in more challenging deployment scenarios. More work is needed by alliance groups and partners to ensure that open RAN can work anywhere in the network, across 3G and 4G as well as in the newer 5G implementations.

Answering ORAN challenges

The success of open RAN depends on four key factors:

1.      A strong ecosystem of manufacturers that can scale up production of the necessary components.

2.      A wide and deep network of partnerships committed to making open RAN work, starting with the standards groups and extending to operators, hardware suppliers, and software companies, like Wind River.

3.      Operator investment in this new technology. All the manufacturing and standards won’t mean a thing if operators will not commit to moving to open RAN.

4.      Closing performance gaps between open RAN and proprietary RAN systems. This will involve experiments, trials, and installations of open RAN, expanding its capabilities to cover a wide variety of deployment scenarios.

Open RAN utilizes several technology trends, including 5G, cloud-native, distributed edge computing, and AI–driven automation. All of these can help push open RAN from being “just a cool new idea” to becoming a key contributor to flexible and cost-effective network infrastructure.

In the final blog post in this series, we’ll discuss how strong partnerships and ongoing collaboration can lead to successful deployments of open RAN.

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