Why Scaling 5G Open RAN is Crucial to the Future of Innovation

August 26, 2021

The increasingly tangible 5G rollout is forcing network operators to revaluate the current radio access network (RAN) landscape and seek new, future-proof solutions. This progression aims to deploy a virtualized, multi-vendor solution that can help optimize cellular infrastructure, not only supporting the steep demands of 5G but aiding in significantly diversifying the previously static supplier market.

What is 5G RAN?

In order for cell phones to connect to a network or the Internet, they first connect via a RAN. A RAN assists radio access and coordinates various network resources across all wireless devices. For RAN to support 5G today, it must be able to maintain multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas, wide spectrum bandwidths, multi-band aggregation and more.

Problem: One Size Does Not Fit All

There is a small handful of vendors providing this essential service in the current efforts to scale 5G RAN. Right now, a mere three vendors supply more than 70% of the radio network market. Though these vendors are oft considered risk-adverse choices, the infrastructure of the RAN driving the largest supply of the Radio Unit (RU) and Baseband Unit (BBU) remains locked into proprietary products, thereby greatly limiting flexibility and choices for operators. Like most single-vendor markets, the present RAN market shares the same drawbacks: increased vulnerability of supply, fixed prices due to lack of competition, and greater dependency between the business and the supplier.

From a long-term perspective on a large-scale 5G rollout, sticking with traditional, closed radio access networks such as these will more likely stifle innovation and progress than accelerate it.

Solution: Give Operators the Best of Breed Choices to Initiate Future Innovation with 5G Open RAN

At the forefront of the 5G rollout is Open RAN (Open Radio Access Network), the latest of several generations of RAN technology that has developed since the beginning of the cellular network. Open RAN stands in sharp contrast to its limited predecessor, aiming to offer agility, stability and benefits of “cloudification” to the RAN.

Open RAN uses open interfaces to create vendor interoperability of the radio and BBU. This is done by utilizing deep learning-based technology like advanced AI and ML systems to disaggregate the RAN functionality – i.e., divide the radio plane into component parts, each which can be reconfigured individually. For example, allowing one vendor to supply the RU and another one for the BBU, or vice versa. Operators will be able to mix with different vendors, enabling richer price competition as more vendors can now bid for different parts of the RAN. In turn, operators profit from more network choice and freedom. By diversifying the supplier ecosystem in the RAN, operators can reap best of breed multi-vendor network and stop vendor lock-in in its tracks.

Another key benefit of Open RAN is the opportunity to introduce new innovation models. Open RAN architectures are freely accessible to all third-party businesses, which can improve new types of services and develop the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), including xApps and rApps. This enables telecoms businesses to customize RAN hardware and software in an Open RAN deployment to provide bespoke features based on the enterprise use case – e.g. operating a private cellular network in a confined environment. Without the open interface that Open RAN delivers, operators can lack the scope to innovate disaggregated RAN parts on their own as well as create new network features.

Although the implementation of Open RAN seems promising, it does face a fair share of challenges. For instance, the unavoidable complexity and growing pains that introducing Open RAN architectures will bring. Complete virtualization does not come without a steep learning curve. With traditional RAN, single vendors usually take full responsibility if issues should arise with their products. However, with Open RAN, in which hardware and software are sourced from many vendors, it might not be immediately clear which product is faulty.

Ultimately, scaling Open RAN is critical to the next phase of the 5G rollout. It not only brings more choice to operators and prevents vendor lock-in, but it also gives them an opportunity to act as a conduit for innovation. Though some certain trials lie ahead, the potential that Open RAN brings to the table is too remarkable to ignore.

To learn more about Polte’s membership in the O-RAN Alliance, click here.

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