Preparing for the Open RAN transition. What are the two key challenges to overcome?
The mobile industry is preparing to invest in Open RAN solutions but there are two key challenges to consider: co-existence and multi-vendor support. Both require adaptation of operational systems. What does this mean?
Open RAN – positive news from MWC 2022
It’s fair to say that Open RAN was one of the big talking points at MWC 2022. While estimates for when Open RAN deployments will begin to dominate overall RAN deployments and displace proprietary solutions vary, there’s a strong consensus that Open RAN will play an increasingly important role in supporting 5G coverage plans.
This consensus is backed by a number of forecasts. You can take your pick, but everything points to a flourishing future – for example, Dell’Oro Group reckons Open RAN will account for 15% of total RAN deployments – by as early as 2026, with the Asia Pacific region leading the way.
Meanwhile, consultancy firm Tecknexus counts nearly 50 trial deployments of Open RAN systems, across more than 30 countries (as of December 2021) – and these are just those that are publicly known. Many of these are likely to be very small scale and may be related to extending coverage beyond the current RAN footprint, rather than being indicative of the replacement of existing RAN solutions, but it’s still signs of growing momentum and points to a bright future.
Indeed, announcements at MWC confirmed this growing momentum, with a number of operators talking up trials, new partnerships and various initiatives, designed to support expansion of the Open RAN ecosystem. And this really is key: one of the drivers to Open RAN is to reduce dependence on a handful of suppliers and to enable a new ecosystem of smaller and typically (for now, at least) independent vendors to flourish.
Understanding challenges that scale will bring
This raises two interesting questions as we move inevitably towards scaling up early-stage trials. First, the obvious. Open RAN is going to co-exist with traditional RAN solutions for some time to come, particularly in national networks. It may take share more rapidly in private networks. The bottom line is that we are heading for a world of hybrid macro public networks, with increasing penetration of new Open RAN solutions being deployed alongside traditional RAN offers and the currently deployed footprint.
Indeed, this phase must exist for some time to come – simply because many operators have already chosen their key RAN partners for 5G rollout. For decisions that have already been taken, it’s safe to say that Open RAN lacked the requisite maturity to be a contender. That will change, but it will clearly take time.
Second, if Open RAN is really going to emerge at commercial scale from a new generation of vendors, we must also consider the likely multi-vendor nature of the new RAN environment. Yes, traditional vendors will move towards Open RAN too, but they may retain some proprietary elements. However, new vendors will deliver both commoditised solutions – and, in all likelihood, deliver specialised solutions to suit different use cases – from small cells to macro cells – and even portable cells for flexible coverage deployments.
OSS adaptation is essential – and must start now
This is exciting – but it does mean that MNOs will also have to adapt to support multiple RAN partners, instead of the traditional one or two. Quite apart from what that means from a commercial perspective, it has significant implications from an operational view.
A term that’s widely used in the industry is agnosticism. We often talk about how solutions are protocol agnostic, for example – which simply means they can connect on any suitable interface for the task in hand. To make the most of Open RAN and to ensure that, not only can new Open RAN solutions be deployed alongside traditional ones (which will be around for a long time to come), but that they can also pick and choose vendors as they like, MNOs will need to become agnostic to different RAN products. That’s a huge task.
We’re essentially saying that MNOs need to build an operational environment into which any RAN – open or otherwise – can be seamlessly deployed into their networks and integrated with their operational systems. To achieve this will require a radical shift from current approaches and a more flexible OSS.
This problem is gaining recognition, as our recent white paper made clear. In “Open RAN automation – how to ensure compatibility with your evolving network”, we outlined the challenges of aligning new, Open RAN investments with existing and traditional RAN solutions, highlighting some key use cases that must be addressed to ensure compatibility.
At present, many trials are based on the introduction of a new, single vendor for Open RAN. From these, we’re learning how to solve the first challenge – how Open RAN and proprietary solutions can co-exist successfully. So, we already know how to include Open RAN alongside existing solutions.
Getting ready for hybrid, multi-vendor networks
In the future, we can expect multiple vendors to be integrated into the network. For that to happen, all interoperability issues need to be solved and MNOs need to be confident that their operational and assurance systems can flex to embrace these deployments.
We haven’t quite reached that point, but we are definitely moving in the right direction – and, by exposing key use cases that must be addressed, we gradually defining how this transition can be enabled. In other words, we can already see how to move to the future, agnostic environment that we’ll need.
So, the message is: watch this space. By taking steps to adapt solutions such as our automation platform now, we’re getting ready for the coming wave of Open RAN deployments, so that MNOs can support the multi-vendor networks they need.
Interested in knowing more? Download our whitepaper, where we explore ways in which Open RAN can be integrated and aligned with automation systems in hybrid networks, to ensure compatibility with the future evolution path required to deliver full-service 5G capabilities.