opinion


Open-minded RAN key to 5G success

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Steve Papa, CEO of Parallel Wireless, makes the case in support of the OpenRAN initiative.

Years of consolidation have left the telecoms industry with three Radio Access Network (RAN) technology giants: Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. But, these players risk becoming obsolete as the telecoms industry starts demanding networks that are open and flexible.

The RAN is a significant expense for mobile operators, in what is already a capital-intensive industry. Legacy RAN networks, built using the technology of the major vendors, is typically hardware centric and designed in silos for each generation (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G) of connectivity. The technology is ‘closed’ by its nature, which means that it is incompatible with other vendors. Subsequently, networks have been very difficult to adapt and upgrade, with the hardware giants dictating the timings and cost of any maintenance and installation.

As we move towards the introduction of 5G, the industry is now beginning to realise that the economics of building the RAN need to change. 2019 saw significant moves towards OpenRAN, a new model of building radio networks, based on a software-centric and open infrastructure. The benefits of OpenRAN were illustrated by Vodafone’s announcement that it would be opening its entire RAN in Europe to OpenRAN vendors during TIP Summit in November. Both the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are leading the industry towards OpenRAN, with the O-RAN alliance driving industry standards, and TIP driving deployments.

Understanding the value of OpenRAN

The OpenRAN approach is achieved by separating hardware and software in the network. This helps networks support open interfaces and common development standards, to deliver multi-vendor, interoperable networks. This gives operators the flexibility to cost-effectively deploy and upgrade their networks, reduce complexity, and deliver coverage at a much lower cost. OpenRAN also makes it easier for network to support dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which allows LTE and 5G New Radio technology transmission at the same time. DSS is key to the early adoption of 5G smartphones, which will rely on both 5G and LTE transmission.

Analysts’ projections from ReTHINK show that the costs of building 5G Macro-cell networks will fall by 50% if deployments incorporate open architectures. This saving equates to hundreds of millions of dollars in the overall total cost of ownership, and will help mobile operators extend investments and become more profitable.

In developed markets, 5G roll-out is in full swing and operators are spending considerable amounts building out their next generation networks and marketing them to the public. However, current connectivity standards cannot be neglected, and operators need a new, software-based approach that will allow them to deploy and run 5G technology efficiently alongside their 3G an 4G networks. This is why OpenRAN is so appealing to operators such as Vodafone, as it enables to manage all connectivity standards using a software interface.

Meanwhile, operators in developing markets are currently focussed on scaling 2G, 3G and 4G to rural and urban areas that don’t have internet. But developing markets have a low average revenue per user, so operators in these markets won’t survive with the approach of building and managing siloed networks for each network generation, as CAPEX and OPEX will skyrocket.

Internet para Todos (IpT), a wholesale operator owned by Telefonica, Facebook, and Latin American banks IDB Invest and CAF Bank is also driving momentum. It recently opened talks to bring a second operator on board, after connecting more than 650 sites and covering 800,000 people (450,000 actual customers) with a 4G rollout in rural Peru. Meanwhile, MTN, the South Africa based operator, recently announced that it is deploying OpenRAN technology in 5,000 sites as it looks to unify its 2G, 3G and 4G networks, to save costs for itself and its customers.

The OpenRAN initiative takes off

In 2020, the momentum behind OpenRAN will continue to grow as other operators realise how they can reduce costs, drive more competition between technology vendors, and stimulate higher levels of innovation in the industry.

OpenRAN clearly has the support from major players in the industry, however, it is vital that operators consider the most effective technology partner to enable the OpenRAN vision. OpenRAN must address all generations of mobile connectivity standards together – 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. If MNOs decide to only introduce OpenRAN for 4G and 5G, they will still be faced with managing separate legacy and new networks, which contradicts the aims of the initiative.

Being able to support all generations of mobile connectivity under the same OpenRAN software umbrella is crucial to providing reliable connectivity for all and allowing the transformative benefits of 5G to be realised. The industry is hungry for change, and open-minded operators are the ones which will succeed. That might mean the traditional ‘big 3’, don’t stay the big 3 for long!

 

Steve has worked in the technology industry for over 20 years and is the founder and CEO of Parallel Wireless. Previously, as founder and CEO of Endeca, he built the business ultimately leading to Oracle acquiring the company. He was part of the team creating Akamai that developed global Internet content distribution – now carrying peaks of 15 terabits/s of web traffic on any given day – and led the team at Inktomi that reimagined the network cache to create carrier class caching. Steve also previously worked with AT&T Teradata. He has a BS from Princeton University and MBA from Harvard Business School.


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