6 Critical Questions to Answer Before Deploying Open RAN
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As the service provider industry moves toward 5G, the Radio Access Network (RAN) will become increasingly software-driven and built with a variety of vendors.
This new ecosystem of vendors makes it possible to deploy best-of-breed solutions that carry extraordinary potential. Operators will be able to deliver next-gen applications and services to their end customers, thus monetizing — better yet, profiting off — their 5G investment.
But it also adds a tremendous amount of complexity. Once hardware and software are pulled apart, someone still needs to piece them back together in such a way that is time and cost effective.
Most service providers need help accelerating the integration and adoption of Open RAN to maximize ROI. Systems integrators, such as World Wide Technology (WWT), help eliminate this gap and enable operators to quickly adopt new open architectures to increase their competitiveness.
Because each network environment is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all solution as it relates to open, virtualized RAN, which means any Open RAN deployment will require a tailored approach.
Before operators deploy such a strategy, they'll need to make a broad assessment of their people, processes and technology to determine the best path forward for the successful implementation and adoption of Open RAN.
To that end, we've developed a series of questions that can put operators on the right track.
For any major network upgrade, it's critical to understand what your near- and long-term goals are for your network. Open RAN is no different.
To start, it's best to think about your biggest opportunities. Is it fixed wireless? Enhanced mobile broadband? Maybe it's planning to deploy 5G and deploying services via the edge of the network? Whatever your prospects, clearly articulating your goals will be important to crafting an Open RAN strategy.
Likewise, it's as important to be aware of the near- and long-term challenges your business and network will face. These include hurdles like capacity, cost structures and an increasingly competitive environment.
2. What is the primary use case driving your interest in Open RAN? And what are the details of the use case?
Open RAN makes way for an open, agile and software-driven network that enables richer services, with greater flexibility at a lower cost. Understanding use cases that exploit these benefits will be important to maximizing ROI.
Initially, operators exploring Open RAN should know why they are going on this journey.
Is this an effort to simply comply with federal regulations to rip and replace certain hardware within the RAN architecture?
The United States government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will soon offer $1 billion in federal money to U.S. service providers to ensure they deploy modernized 4G/5G RAN solutions. The incentive, a majority of which is targeted to help rural carriers, would help American operators compete against and become a more robust player in the 5G economy.
Is this a way to enhance your current 4G/LTE network as you prepare for 5G?
Operators must leverage existing 4G infrastructure to deliver 5G-esque services while at the same time investing in the technology needed to work toward adopting true, standalone 5G. It's therefore important to understand the differences between non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA) 5G.
- 5G NSA architectures allow service providers to utilize LTE core networks and base stations, while adding new 5G base stations to provide enhanced mobile broadband services and give consumers better bandwidth. They can be deployed much quicker than 5G SA architectures and represent a way for service providers to continue squeezing value from their existing 4G technology portfolio while transitioning to 5G. Initial 5G rollouts will be based on NSA architectures as service providers in a race to be the first to offer 5G services will focus on delivering much faster data speeds and reliable connectivity to consumers with 5G-enabled devices.
- Fully-independent 5G SA architectures will deliver the full potential of 5G — ultra-low latency, advanced network slicing and new uses cases to develop next-generation services around. Service providers will need to build a new fully virtualized 5G network that includes the radio access, edge, transport and mobile core networks, all separate from their current 4G infrastructure. However, viability depends on organizational readiness and equipment availability.
Deploying 5G NSA will allow service providers to gain market share, maximize ROI on existing 4G LTE infrastructure and unleash the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) while they transition to 5G SA.
Whenever possible, service providers should consider leveraging the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum to augment their existing network capacity or to provide fixed wireless access (FWA) to residential customers. CBRS deployment can be incorporated as part of the Open RAN upgrade.
Carriers should also consider the possibility of providing managed Private LTE network to enterprises. Private LTE — or eventually 5G networks — over CBRS offer guaranteed quality of service (QoS), increase in-building capacity, provide a better experience over Wi-Fi and begin to leverage the Internet of Things for industrial applications or smart cities.
Service providers are well positioned to help enterprises adopt such a private network solution given they have:
- Decades of experience service providers have managing mobile networks.
- The ability to offer seamless connectivity within and outside of an enterprise's premises. A software defined and Open-RAN greatly simplifies the deployment and management of multiple private networks.
Beyond initial reasons for deploying Open RAN, carriers should also consider use cases that would benefit from an Open RAN architecture — those that utilize machine learning systems and artificial intelligence backend modules to empower network intelligence through open and standardized interfaces in a multi-vendor network.
The O-RAN Alliance, a carrier-led industry group aimed at driving new levels of openness in the radio access network of next generation wireless systems, provides several Open RAN use cases:
- AI-enabled RAN and Open RAN interfaces:
- RAN slice SLA assurance
- Context-based dynamic handover management
- Flight path-based dynamic UAV applications
- Virtual RAN network:
- RAN sharing
Operators can begin to also consider use cases from an end-customer point of view.
As 5G will enable network features that cater to specific industry verticals, it's important to have a good understanding of what use cases are driving your network and interest in Open RAN. One of the benefits of Open RAN is achieving a best-of-breed multi-vendor network that enables operators to bring innovative solutions specific to different industry verticals from RAN vendors, third parties and their own R&D teams. So yes, Open RAN will usher in unique multi-vendor architectures tailored to meet the needs of specific applications of industries.
Perhaps the most important aspect of successfully implementing an Open RAN architecture into your network is the network itself.
- How is your network currently configured?
- How many cell sites are operational and how many will need to be replaced? Where are these sites located and what technologies are used? How many sites will require structural upgrades to support the new RAN?
- What operating bands are being used? What are your spectrum license holdings? Will the new RAN be on the same bands or new bands?
- How many transport circuits need to be replaced?
- What are the number of core locations for all operating technologies?
Without a complete understanding of your network topology, you run the risk of guessing — or worse, moving forward blindly — and jeopardizing deployment, adoption and time to market.
Taking inventory of your network will also help provide clarity on how the new RAN will need to be deployed.
Legacy RAN systems were handled by a baseband unit (BBU) that is now virtualized as part of the cloudification of RAN architectures to enable better scaling and resource pooling. Open RAN disaggregates the virtual BBU (vBBU) further into real-time, or Distributed Unit (vDU) and non-real-time, or Central Unit (vCU) functions.
Typically, the vRAN software has very specific hardware requirements for the vDU component (real-time), which balance cost and performance. The vDU server nodes will have a configuration applied that allocates each CPU core carefully and will have specific hardware for offloading digital signal processing (DSP) functions.
WWT's Open RAN blueprint, which includes multiple deployment models, supports cost-effective builds and upgrades to existing infrastructures.
- Model 1: High Density (Centralized vDU at Far Edge DC)
- Model 2: Low Density (vDU at Cell Site)
- Model 3: High Density (vDU at Cell Site)
Mobile network operators face an increasingly demanding and competitive business environment, a reality confounded by the fact that technology is changing more rapidly than ever before.
A recent survey from Heavy Reading found that more than 60 percent of telcos believe Open RAN will be critical over the next two years, with more than 20 commercial trials already taking place globally — both in emerging markets and developing countries.
The survey also found that more than 80 percent of carriers see field testing as a challenge.
The point is: Operators are already underway with Open RAN testing and challenges exist to getting up and running. Further, before you can replace your old network, you need to ensure the new RAN solution is up and running, and optimized.
WWT is uniquely positioned in the Open RAN ecosystem as the only systems integrator in the Open RAN Policy Coalition and the Competitive Carriers Association, two key organizations working to standardize technical and performance standards.
Given this position, we've outlined a step-by-step process operators can take to deploy Open RAN seamlessly.
Building, designing and deploying is just half the battle, and it's all rendered useless if you can't operate the new RAN successfully moving forward.
Ongoing support and maintenance of the new RAN will be key, too.
- Software and level three support.
- Operational training, like maintaining a training lab for operations teams.
- New feature trial and validation:
- Continuous lab support with regression testing, etc.
- Maintain MOPs and provide updated versions for lifecycle support.
- Network parameter audit and optimization.
- RAN software lifecycle management.
Whether operators are looking to rip and replace government regulated hardware or simply modernize their networks to stay competitive, they are challenged to:
- Find an end-to-end open network solution that covers RAN, transport, core and operations support systems (OSS).
- Manage the complexity of deploying the solution (contracting, preventing fragmentation, dealing with local municipalities, etc.).
- Making sure network performance is not negatively impacted during rollout.
- Doing all the above in such a way that is time and cost effective.
- Ensure the required post-deployment operational support.
Service providers need help accelerating the integration and adoption of innovative technology solutions, such as Open RAN, to fully realize their benefits.
WWT can assist operators along every step of the process — from idea to outcome — to make it easier to consume and deploy Open RAN on any scale.
We've developed a catalog of services that wraps around the entire solution — from solution design and validation to deployment and supply chain to on-site installation and ongoing support.