14 May 2024

Selecting an OpenRAN deployment: What network operators need to know


Open radio access network, or OpenRAN, implementations are gaining popularity globally in the telecommunications industry. Its ability to drive cost savings, vendor flexibility and scalability provide network operators with abundant opportunities to offer new customer-friendly services in an increasingly competitive industry. OpenRAN is still in its early stages of development, and not all network operators understand its benefits fully. In this blog, we discuss the emergence of OpenRAN, the reasons behind its wider adoption, the challenges faced by brownfield carriers, why a system integrator is a necessary must-have for OpenRAN deployments and what we think of its future trajectory.

The emergence of OpenRAN

Advancements in the mobile network operator (MNO) landscape have created significant shifts in this technology area. Network operators can now lower their costs while providing optimum solutions for their unique business requirements. Built using microservices architecture, cloud-native applications provide auto-scaling, self-healing features and platform agnostic deployments along with enhanced agility through CI/CD pipelines. Cloud-native solutions are designed with innovation and security as top concerns, facilitating the emergence of open and disaggregated network architectures to further empower MNOs. Cellular technology has also advanced concurrently. Today, 5G networks are addressing a wider domain of enterprise use cases and new verticals. 5G’s low latency, high reliability and high bandwidth are powering industrial IoT (IIoT) applications with real-time monitoring and automation. Consumers can now enjoy seamless augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and extended reality (XR) experiences with 5G. Autonomous vehicles, remote healthcare, smart agriculture and smart manufacturing are some 5G use cases. Multi Access Edge Computing (MEC) brings computing resources and services closer to the network edge. An open, disaggregated RAN will expedite MEC service adoption. A handful of large corporations dominate the RAN equipment market, and there are limited chances for new market entrants at present. Due to this ecosystem, operators are forced to continuously buy from the same traditional RAN vendors. RAN vendor lock-in is mainly due to the lack of openness and interoperability in the RAN architecture. Traditional RAN vendors have their own proprietary interfaces with their ecosystems, posing challenges for interoperability with other vendors. To address this gap, a collection of operators and vendors established OpenRAN to build an open ecosystem for future proof RAN deployments. OpenRAN defines multiple open interfaces within RAN, which not only allows interoperability among vendors but also facilitates engagement amongst multiple vendors. Moreover, OpenRAN leverages both centralised and virtualised RAN concepts, enabling flexibility in the deployment and management of the network - facilitating the use of general purpose hardware. This gives network operators enormous opportunities to scale up or scale down the solution. Modular design especially impacts upgrades as operators can replace only a portion of the system, whereas with traditional RAN operators, they had to overhaul the entire network. Open RAN presents a more cost effective option considering industry competition, standard hardware, and flexibility.

OpenRAN transformation successes and challenges

Successful OpenRAN trials and commercial deployments have been undertaken around the world. For example, there are large deployments in Japan by Rakutan and Dish Networks in the United States, both of which are greenfield deployments. Meanwhile, AT&T is planning to lead OpenRAN in the United States. India has multiple rollouts, while many other countries in the APAC region have completed at least one OpenRAN trial. Operators are increasingly interested in transforming into OpenRAN. Greenfield operators without the burden of legacy RAN are displaying better success than brownfield operators. Brownfield operators who used to work with traditional RAN equipment are taking longer to migrate to OpenRAN. As OpenRAN technology has been developing along the latest 5G and 4G networks, there are limited capabilities and interoperability available for 2G and 3G deployments. It is therefore imperative that operators maintain both traditional RAN and OpenRAN at the same site location. Brownfield operators also face another obstacle when engaging with RAN as a solution-in-the-box, where they do not want extensive system integration. Operators can change RAN management by engaging with multiple vendors and virtualisation platforms. In such instances, an operator requires a transformation in its organisational culture, retraining the engineering team with the required skills for successful OpenRAN implementation. This is where a system integrator can guide the operator.

The role of a system integrator in an era of OpenRAN

RAN vendors manage system integration in traditional RAN deployments. With OpenRAN, however, an independent system integrator will play a major role in the ecosystem. A system integrator will undertake an unbiased external review of requirements and challenges to provide the optimum solution. System integrators typically play a major role during initial OpenRAN deployments by masking the complexities and limitations of the deployment. At NCINGA, our solution comprises end-to-end solution design, selection of the most suitable vendor, deployment and integration, along with testing and validation. We provide continuous maintenance support for both hardware and software while educating our clients about the skills they need to acquire. Unlike typical telecommunications applications that are deployed in the data centre, RAN deployments require additional fieldwork with the involvement of multiple parties. We partner with the industry's top software and hardware manufacturers, along with local resources, to provide end-to-end system integration. NCINGA also offers private RAN networks for telecommunications operators and enterprises. Private networks offer an OpenRAN network in addition to our scalable 5G core that you can deploy on a single server.

Conclusion: OpenRAN is the future

We believe that OpenRAN is still in its inception (or perhaps the teenage years). As impressive as recent developments have been, there are areas for further improvement compared with mature traditional RAN. But this does not negate its current achievements and potential. Brownfield operators are opting for OpenRAN trials in small site clusters. The cost per base station for these trials may be marginally higher compared to traditional RAN. These costs will be reduced as OpenRAN ecosystems continue to grow. Having open, disaggregated RAN at the edge expands the potential for futuristic applications in network operators and the telecommunications industry. These applications include mission-critical use cases such as vehicular communications, content scaling, private networks, augmentation, edge content delivery and data aggregation applications. OpenRAN is naturally the most preferred solution for such applications. Learn more about our network solutions.
Author - Chamika Sirimanna