Open RAN Leverages Existing Infrastructure to Accelerate 5G Enablement
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The economics of 5G will require investment across all domains of the network.
Networks must be densified. Workloads need to be pushed closer to the edge. More cost-efficient approaches to infrastructure will be key to delivering at scale.
It all begins with operators' radio access networks — viewed as the least vendor-diverse part of the network. Single-vendor RAN solutions can stifle innovation and reduce features to the lowest common denominator defined by vendors.
Unlike 4G, which used the massive cell towers scattered throughout a region, 5G will utilize smaller radios that leverage virtualized network functions to support the growing bandwidth demand and low latency of 5G.
One major change in 5G is the New Radio (NR). It will use much higher radio frequencies (millimeter wave) to achieve higher bandwidth required for the huge increase in connected devices and new use cases. Because 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) radios cover a smaller geographical area, many more will need to be deployed, which remains a challenge, according to the GSM Association (GSMA), particularly for smaller network operators as:
- Virtual RAN (vRAN) remains a complex technology solution, which requires operators to undergo significant IT transformation and workforce skill sets.
- Most vRAN deployments so far have been small in scale and limited to a few large operators.
- There is a need to accelerate the scalability of vRAN equipment.
Open RAN — essentially vRAN on general-purpose hardware (i.e. whitebox hardware) — helps alleviate the above challenges, particularly as it pertains to scale and cost efficiency. But on top of that, and perhaps even more appealing, Open RAN solutions can utilize existing network infrastructure to enhance 4G while forging a straightforward path toward true 5G adoption.
The move to a virtualized, open network, according to a recent GSMA article, would disrupt the status quo in the telecoms equipment market and could have "significant implications by opening up the competitive playing field and moving towards common standards that help drive scale economies — and therefore cost efficiency for rollouts."
Open RAN, according to the O-RAN Alliance enables vendors, operators and third parties to deploy innovative services as RAN applications that can leverage emerging artificial intelligence- and machine learning-based technologies.
An open, cloud-based RAN are an essential step to realizing the potential of 5G networks by providing:
- Improved global supply chain practice.
- Addresses time to market with faster feature delivery.
- Improves overall user experience.
- Reduces operational expenditures through superior automation and power management.
- Reduces capital expenditures through stronger vendor management.
- Enhances revenue through new business models through API enablement.
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.
"We want to make sure that rural Americans enjoy these benefits, just as residents of large urban areas will. In order to do that, the Universal Service Fund must be forward-looking and support the networks of tomorrow," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the time of the announcement.
It's a tremendous opportunity for mid-sized network operators to invest in their future. Open RAN will enable service providers to deliver next-generation experiences and services to their residential and enterprise customers while modernizing their network and position them for a transition to 5G, when and if they so choose.
Before operators rip and replace equipment, however, they must find a suitable alternative.
World Wide Technology recently announced a partnership with Cisco and Altiostar, an innovator in open virtual RAN technology, to build an Open RAN blueprint that service providers can utilize to accelerate the deployment of 4G/5G Open RAN solutions.
The end-to-end turnkey solution will help operators deploy fully integrated, open cloud-based virtualized RAN solutions based on technology created by Cisco and Altiostar.
The blueprint, validated in WWT's Advanced Technology Center, a unique lab environment with over $500 million in OEM infrastructure, can provide a significant boost for service providers to implement and realize the industry's 5G vision by delivering an open, agile, software-driven network that enables richer services, with greater flexibility at a lower cost.
The Open RAN solution:
- Maximizes ROI on existing network infrastructure by utilizing current hardware to deploy the solution.
- Is a fully integrated, cloud-based virtual RAN, which enables a new ecosystem of vendors to participate in the RAN industry while leveraging the benefits of cloud-based architecture, including web-scale hardware and systems.
- Provides a future-proof architecture that creates a simple transition path to 5G.
Legacy RAN systems were handled by a baseband unit (BB) that is now virtualized as part of the cloudification of RAN architectures to enable better scaling and resource pooling. Open v-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.
Modular deployment blueprints of our Open RAN solution are available to support cost-effective options for greenfield builds and existing infrastructure upgrades.
- 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)
Unlike previous generations in which 2G was supplanted by 3G, only to be ripped and replaced by 4G later on, 5G is not replacing anything. In fact, 4G LTE and 5G will coexist and complement each other for some time as service providers continue to invest in both.
The industry has broadly adopted a two-phased approach comprised of non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA) 5G architectures.
- 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.
- Fully-independent 5G SA architectures will deliver the full potential of 5G — ultra-low latency, advanced network slicing and new use cases to develop next-generation services around. Service providers would also 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.
5G NSA can roll out quickly, but is limited when compared to 5G SA, which will take longer to deploy.
Large Tier 1 operators, naturally, are going to jump as fast as they can to 5G SA. But for rural operators, it's a bit more nuanced.
Some rural operators may see value in 5G SA, while others opt to leverage the enhanced mobile broadband capabilities of 5G NSA to maximize ROI. Some operators may not care about 5G altogether.
The Open RAN solution can at the same time enhance service providers 4G networks while preparing the network for a gradual transition to 5G in any of its iterations while limiting the amount of network infrastructure needed to be deployed.
Innovation will play a key role in service providers' ability to compete in the 5G economy while technology is changing more rapidly than ever and becoming increasingly connected. Open RAN is certainly proof of that.
But innovation is challenging and time consuming. Service providers need help accelerating the integration and adoption of innovative technology solutions, such as Open RAN, to realize the benefits.
We view innovation as a team sport.
We work hand-in-hand with service providers to create unique partnerships that establish business outcomes to drive strategy and technology investment.