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Open RAN: The final frontier

How Open RAN is changing the world of telecommunications, one network at a time.
Read time 10min 10sec

In the very simplest of terms, a communication network is a set of interconnected nodes that exchange data. When a telco builds a mobile network, the most expensive part is the radio access network (RAN). This is the radio base station, which connects users to the core network. Telcos have traditionally used proprietary appliances in their networks. These boxes are expensive, and are only made by a handful of suppliers. It’s also worth remembering that telco networks have to be extremely reliable, with very little downtime, perhaps just 30 seconds a year. The networks also have to be able to handle the scale; imagine if most of South Africa’s 54 million-odd cellphone users are all on the line? A couple of years ago, the industry began to virtualise its network services. This is known as network functions virtualisation (NFV). Telcos are now able to use virtual machines for some services, such as routers, firewalls, caching, for example, and these can be run on standard, non-proprietary servers. Now, the radio access network is being virtualised, and this is known as Open RAN. It’s a complicated area, and is awash in an alphabet soup of acronyms, which is one reason why Brainstorm assembled a panel of industry experts to make sense of it all.

Anybody can make a new piece of the end-to-end network better, and it allows smaller players to come in and do something disruptive. That has benefits, but it also adds a massive challenge: who’s going to stick it all together?

Anthony Laing, NEC XON

At the outset, it may also be worth dealing with the nomenclature: O-RAN refers to the O-RAN Alliance standards body, which is working on the Open RAN specifications. Then there’s OpenRAN, which is the way the collaborative industry group the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) prefers to write it. Finally, there’s vRAN, which stands for virtualised radio access networks, which allows telcos to run their baseband functions as software. Open RAN also opens the door to 5G, but as Anthony Laing, GM: Networking, at NEC XON, says,a lot of people mention Open RAN and 5G in the same breath, yet they’re actually different technologies. Telcos and mobile operators will typically pick one, two, or, if they’re brave, three vendors, and then they’d be locked into using their equipment, he adds.

“Open RAN democratises the network. It’s broken up into many more components, and the interfaces are open. The concept is that anybody can make a new piece of the end-to-end network better, and it allows smaller players to come in and do something disruptive. That has benefits, but it also adds a massive challenge: who’s going to stick it all together?

“You need to be able to glue these things together and make them work seamlessly. That’s the key in Open RAN, and it’s a fundamental shift in the way this industry has worked for decades.”

He mentions that Rakuten Mobile in Japan – which has the first 5G production network in the world – had partnered with NEC, among others, in the trial.

Tholo Lerotholi, commercial executive at Zoom Fibre, says his company is looking into Open RAN as an alternative revenue stream. Sitting on the commercial, not technical side, of the business, he says he’s ‘the capitalist in the room’. Zoom has now passed 70 000 homes.

“There’s tremendous opportunity for us, both in South Africa and the continent, simply because we see Open RAN as an opportunity to democratise the space. Ultimately, that’s where FTTH has plugged itself in, making a solution affordable and accessible to the masses. Open RAN is a new wing (for our business) and we’re looking to see how we could integrate the two. Obviously, fibre being the bedrock of connectivity at the moment puts us in a decent position to explore Open RAN.”

On the horizon

Aji Ed, CTO, Nokia Mobile Networks for MEA, says that at present, the O-RAN Alliance defines only 4G and 5G as Open RAN. However, there’s predominantly 2G, 3G and LTE in the Middle East and Africa, he says, and it will be challenging to migrate to Open RAN with legacy equipment.

Nokia Mobile Networks is one of the established infrastructure players supporting O-RAN as a standard, and is part of two code sharing working groups in the O-RAN Alliance. One of these is the RAN intelligent controller, which provides low latency use cases, at the edge. It’s also working on ‘splitting the fronthaul’, which he says is a fundamental part of the O-RAN standard, so that vendors can be ‘mixed and matched’.

Brainstorm: What kind of timeframes are we talking about for adoption? I’ve been seeing talk of 2025…

Networks have been built over a very long time, and they’re not going to democratise these monolithic architectures in less than five years.

Keoikantse Marungwana, IDC

Ed says there’s already been some small-scale successes, and also mentions the Rakuten example, in which the company successfully verified data transfer on a 5G mobile network in Tokyo. There’s also a consortium in Europe that includes Orange and Deutsche Telekom, among others, working on a solution. Vodafone also announced that it has the first Open RAN site up and running in the UK, he adds.

On the Vodafone site, he says: “If you ask my opinion, it’s not Open RAN, it’s a virtualised RAN, so this is why the terminology plays a big role. A virtualised RAN is disaggregated in a single base station. It’s not an open interface between the radio and the baseband. In 2025, we expect to see maybe around 5% or 10% market share for Open RAN versus the traditional RAN.”

Gavin McDougall, solution architect at Red Hat, says open source and open standards are very much connected to one another, and telcos have, over the years, started opening up their network, which used to be comprised of proprietary boxes and proprietary standards.

His company has been working on NFV for a number of years, and the ‘last bastion’ still to be virtualised is the radio access network.

Ultimately, that’s where FTTH has plugged itself in, making a solution affordable and accessible to the masses.

Tholo Lerotholi, Zoom Fibre

McDougall says this trend of virtualisation is now evolving into a ‘telco cloud’, or software defined cloud infrastructure.

With NFV, he says, the standards body ETSI was involved in drafting what the architecture should look like, and that Red Hat has been turning this into open source code. It was now doing the same with Open RAN.

Red Hat is providing the telco cloud layer from the core to the edge of the network, where the radio units are deployed.

Providing the glue

“Some of the key drivers we’re seeing is a reduction of vendor lock-in. Telcos have been locked in to three or maybe four major NEPs (network equipment providers) over the years and this has levelled the playing field,” McDougall says. “You mentioned democratisation, and they‘re looking at this in a sense of cost reduction and having some flexibility. Now, with the concept of edge computing, you’re able to run applications closer to the end-user, whether it’s IoT, AI or video surveillance. We’re also seeing trends like zero-touch provisioning and closed loop automation to self-organising networks. With Covid hitting us, the traffic patterns changed quite a bit, so everyone moved back to the suburbs. Having a software defined network gives you more flexibility to move and reroute traffic as you need to.”

He now digs into some of the contributions his company has made.

“Traditionally, you had all of the software components combined with the radio, and this has now all been decoupled, but we started seeing issues around latency and so we’ve had to improve the operating system to incorporate things such as a real-time kernel. We’ve had to implement hardware acceleration, so using components such as GPUs and FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) and because time is quite important, we’ve now incorporated what we call precision time protocol. We provide the glue between the hardware and the application, we don’t get involved in the hardware space or application space, but where we’re adding value is the ecosystem that we build around it.”

In 2025, we expect to see maybe around 5% or 10% market share for Open RAN versus the traditional RAN.

Aji Ed, Nokia Mobile Networks MEA

He echoes Laing and Adji Ed in saying that Rakutan is the Open RAN ‘shining light’. “The radios were from Nokia, and I think NEC provided some of the hardware and the management and orchestration with Netcracker. They chose Red Hat as the telco cloud, so we’ve all participated in that rollout.”

Keoikantse Marungwana, IDC, Anthony Laing, NEC XON and Tholo Lerotholi, Zoom Fibre.
Keoikantse Marungwana, IDC, Anthony Laing, NEC XON and Tholo Lerotholi, Zoom Fibre.

McDougallsays Red Hat certified its software, or cloud layer, to run on all the different hardware platforms and then it worked with, for example, Nokia, Ericsson or ZTE, to certify their network functions.

“Once the telcos build their cloud and infrastructure, they could have a radio from Nokia and some of the other radio components, like the DU (distributed unit) and CU (centralised unit) from another provider. They could then decide that they’re going to use a third provider for their 5G core. No longer is it going to be one NEP from end-to-end. So there’s choice and flexibility.”

Keoikantse Marungwana, senior research and consulting manager, Telco and IoT lead, Sub-Saharan Africa, IDC, says smaller players are now able to start targeting markets that aren’t viable for the large operators.

“A small player can now spin up a RAN network, and they no longer need expensive equipment; 5G can now be opened up for under-serviced markets. It accelerates the opportunity of mobile private networks or enterprise private networks because they no longer need to be a telco to run a mobile network.”

He does wonder, though, if the technology is going to see the rollout of 5G in underserviced markets.

“When TCOs and barriers to entry are reduced, are we only going to see profits increase, or are we going to see it opening up deployments for rural and underserviced markets?”

Marungwana believes the Open Ran deployment to rural areas would also take longer than it would in mature markets.

Gavin McDougall, Red Hat and Aji Ed, Nokia Mobile Networks MEA.
Gavin McDougall, Red Hat and Aji Ed, Nokia Mobile Networks MEA.

“Networks have been built over a very long time, and they’re not going to democratise these monolithic architectures in less than five years.”

McDougall says over the years, the telcos have become comfortable with the big NEPs managing everything for them.

“A telco pays for a service, and there’s SLAs, and there would be a fixed contract, for example, of five years and they wouldn’t have to have the skills or knowledge to manage that. Now, you’re bringing hardware and operating system suppliers, and multi-vendors. Who manages that? There are only so many people who can, and again, it goes back to the network equipment providers. These new players that are coming up with Open RAN technology don’t have the scale of the network equipment providers to manage a network that spans across Africa. The complexity is holding them back, and not knowing how to manage it, and not having the skills. That’s why there’s a little bit of reluctance. They’ve been doing it the old way, and it’s worked for them and there’s accountability. Who’s accountable if it breaks? There’s going to be a finger pointing exercise. There always needs to be a single throat to choke.”

* This feature was first published in the March edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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