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Blog Series Part I: What is OpenRAN?

Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha

In the first part of this blog series, I will cover the topic what is openRAN. And in the concluding part of the series, I will cover the benefits of OpenRAN.

As an integral part of wireless communication, radio access networks (RAN) connect computers, smartphones, tablets, and similar remotely-controlled devices to various parts of a network through radio connections. The device manufacturers design the user devices with built-in RAN. The RAN connects the devices to a telecom network wirelessly by managing resources across radio sites. But the providers often find it difficult to customize, deploy, and update their network architectures as RAN does not keep the hardware and software decoupled.

Open radio access network (OpenRAN) helps providers to overcome the major shortcomings of traditional RAN by decoupling software and hardware. The technology makes hardware and software components produced by different vendors interact with each other seamlessly over open and interoperable network interfaces. The multi-vendor approach and openness will contribute immensely towards 5G implementation. Along with facilitating the implementation of 5G, OpenRAN can also be applied to improve the performance of 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.

What is OpenRAN: Understanding Important Aspects of Open Radio Access Network (OpenRAN) Technology

Decouples Hardware and Software Components

OpenRAN technology helps telecom companies (telcos) to overcome the major shortcoming of traditional RAN. The decoupling of the hardware and software components on the network enables telcos to reduce the dependence on proprietary hardware. They now have the option to customize the telecom network by integrating software and hardware units produced by various vendors. The decoupling of software and hardware components makes it easier for telcos to manage and upgrade their systems dynamically.

Reduces Overall Telecom Infrastructure Cost

Along with simplifying telecom network deployment, OpenRAN architecture helps telcos to curtail infrastructure costs significantly. As the telcos are not required to use proprietary hardware or software, they can reduce costs by avoiding vendor lock-in. Also, they can save OPEX by procuring software and hardware components from small vendors and startups. More and more telcos have been investigating the potential and promise of OpenRAN architecture with the intention to reduce upfront infrastructural overheads without impacting the customer experience.

Standardizes Radio Interfaces

Like traditional RAN, OpenRAN architecture emphasizes on standardization of radio interfaces. But the technology aims to standardize the radio interfaces in an open and accessible way. The open standardization will facilitate interoperability between the hardware and software components of telecom networks built by various vendors. Also, new enterprises can leverage open standards to produce innovative software and hardware components to boost the performance of the telecom network.

Optimizes Networks Using Embedded Intelligence

5G networks will be much more complex than 3G and 4G networks. The telcos cannot implement, update, and customize 5G networks using traditional RAN technology. OpenRAN is developed based on intelligence as the core principle. The built-in intelligence makes the technology effective in managing complex telecom networks like 5G. The telcos will leverage OpenRAN technology to optimize 5G networks without deploying human resources.

Facilitates RAN Virtualization

Many telcos already use virtual radio access networks (vRAN) to set up multiple radio networks based on a single and uniform hardware platform. At present, vRAN is considered to be extremely important for 5G networks. OpenRAN architecture emphasizes on end-to-end RAN virtualization. Unlike vRAN, OpenRAN does not require telcos to depend on proprietary hardware platforms or components. The network virtualization, control plane user plane split, and orchestration enable them to experiment and also intelligently operate the network. Hence, telcos can leverage the architecture to speed up 5G implementation through complete RAN virtualization.

Leads to Development of Energy-Efficient Base Stations

The O-RAN Alliance has already released a reference design for white-box base station hardware. The next-generation hardware supports both remote radio units (RRUs) and baseband units (BBUs). It further decouples the hardware and software architecture completely using reference platforms. The engineers and system architect can leverage the white-box base station hardware to build an energy-efficient base station to support complex 5G networks. The reference design will further encourage many existing companies and startups to boost the performance and energy-efficiency of the new generation base stations.

Complements Varied Deployment Scenarios

The telcos can deploy OpenRAN in several ways. They can adopt a centralized OpenRAN deployment model to reuse the existing infrastructure. Many telcos deploy the architecture in a centralized way to set up a 5G network by upgrading their existing fiber-optic links. At the same time, the telcos can adopt a distributed OpenRAN deployment model to reduce the cost of delivering connectivity by setting up customized networks. Many telcos opt for distributed deployment to deploy additional data centers and provide connectivity to additional customers.

Many Leading Telcos are Testing it

The leading telecom companies have already started OpenRAN testing and trialing. In 2019, Vodafone became the first telco to trial the OpenRAN architecture in the UK. Likewise, the Telecom Infra Project (TIO) has been expanding its OpenRAN trial programs across Africa and Latin America.

According to a recent survey,

68% of the respondents claim they or the wider business is exploring OpenRAN for densification demands, 47% pointed towards greenfield deployments in urban environments, 42% are looking to replace their incumbent suppliers and 5% are seeking validation in the rural areas.

Creates New Revenue Opportunities

OpenRAN has already created new revenue opportunities for both NEMs and Telcos. Many telcos have already adopted the technology to curtail overall network costs. Also, the leading NEMs have been gradually adopting OpenRAN technology to retain competitive edge which they have been maintaining since several years. The open interfaces and standardization encourages startups like Altiostar and Radisys to develop innovative hardware and software components to drive 5G deployment.
At present, OpenRAN is one of the hottest trends in the telecom industry. But the O-RAN Alliance was formed only in early 2018. With more and more industry players joining O-RAN Alliance, OpenRAN technology will evolve regularly. Also, the new initiatives taken by the O-RAN alliance will make most of the hardware and software components interoperate with each other regardless of their manufacturers.

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