As someone deeply involved in the communications industry, I’ve noticed an interesting shift taking place in mobile networks. It’s not something end users of those networks would probably ever notice—or even care about. But it’s fundamentally changing the way carriers, enterprises and equipment manufacturers think about building digital connectivity. Deep in the nuts and bolts of the underlying infrastructure, some of the critical components of cellular networks are being broken apart and rebuilt for cloud.
This revolution is centered around radio access networks (RANs). A RAN is the part of cellular infrastructure that connects your smartphone (or any other kind of connected device) with the core network. Until now, the specialized equipment RANs run on has been purpose-built and supplied by just a handful of global manufacturers. Each RAN was also, effectively, a closed loop, with the hardware tightly integrated with the manufacturer’s own software.
Open RAN: building blocks for networks
Having so few suppliers providing closed proprietary infrastructure was impacting the competitiveness of the whole market. In fact, in some parts of the world, there were really only two vendors to choose from.
And so Open RAN was born. Its central idea is to break down RANs into component parts. By separating the software from the hardware, among other things, it allows the existing monolithic proprietary infrastructure to be more open, flexible, software-defined and customizable.
I like to think of it as constructing a network with building blocks. With a disaggregated RAN, you have one block for radio hardware, one for orchestration software, one for monitoring and so on. You can therefore build a more optimized network that’s more suited to your particular requirements, picking and choosing exactly the blocks you need.
Much more than cost optimization
Crucially, you also get more building blocks to choose from. One of the main drivers of Open RAN is to get more players into the market and increase overall competitiveness, both on the hardware side and the software side.
Clearly, this has the potential to drive down capex for mobile carriers and enterprises building private networks. But the promise of Open RAN is about much more than simply cost optimization. Having an open architecture and a larger ecosystem of players will spur greater innovation across the whole marketplace.
For example, a key component of the Open RAN architecture is the cloud native RAN intelligent controller (RIC). It provides an open platform for control and self-optimization functions. The RIC is a significant departure from legacy architecture models in which only vendors have access to RAN feature development, control and optimization. That means there’s greater scope for new entrants to specialize in discrete elements of the RAN ecosystem, especially on the software side.
Momentum is building …
By mid-2021, 73 operators from 38 countries were either already working on or committed to Open RAN deployments. And research from Telecoms.com, VMWare and Accenture suggests two-thirds of companies plan to deploy commercial Open RAN solutions within five years.
The opening up of RAN infrastructure will be increasingly relevant to large enterprises, too. Private cellular networks are becoming an ever more practical option for large organizations. These networks offer a more customized and scalable way to achieve wide-area connectivity in offices, manufacturing plants and other facilities. As the control and coordination architecture of the RAN is opened, it allows enterprises to adapt to unique local conditions or use cases.
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Deep in the nuts and bolts of the underlying infrastructure, some of the critical components of cellular networks are being broken apart and rebuilt for cloud.
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The introduction of private 5G networks opens even more industrial and commercial use cases. For instance, in remote locations and other sites where Wi-Fi or public cellular connectivity is challenging. So, I believe it’s important that enterprises as well as carriers understand how Open RAN is changing the underlying infrastructure.
… but challenges remain
There’s no doubt there are some barriers that Open RAN still needs to overcome. The most obvious is technical interoperability. Clearly, when you have more players providing more building blocks within the ecosystem, you need them to all play nice together. Specifications must be completed and harmonized with other relevant standards before Open RAN can be deployed more widely.
Another reality is that a higher number of building blocks and players requires greater integration. Integration has always played a significant role in the network infrastructure ecosystem. But in an Open RAN architecture, this role expands further into the product-level integration of different RAN elements. These elements include the radio unit, distributed unit, centralized unit, RAN intelligent controller (RIC) and so on. Systems integration will be crucial in helping to “aggregate” the disaggregation of Open RAN.
Another perceived barrier is security. The fear is that a disaggregated multi-player network simply expands the potential attack surface for cybercriminals to exploit. In fact, in Telecoms.com’s Annual Industry Survey (conducted in partnership with VMWare and Accenture), 56% of respondents thought security was a high or relatively high barrier to the widespread adoption of Open RAN.
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Four actions to consider now
So, how should carriers and enterprises respond to the opening of RAN infrastructure? Here are four steps I recommend you consider:
- Disaggregate. Start planning for a disaggregated network and take ownership of the cost structure. Think about how best to piece together the various building blocks from different suppliers to improve the network. And look for partners who can build and operate the network, not just supply equipment.
- Integrate. Consider how to simplify the complexity and aggregate the disaggregation that Open RAN brings. Build systems integration and cloud networking competencies, either internally or with partners. Establish a strong project management organization to orchestrate the ecosystem.
- Automate. Establish automation DNA in your organization. The cloud-based software-defined side to Open RAN will unlock huge opportunities for hyper-efficient automation. That will transform both scalability (the ability to spin up a new network on demand) and resilience (automatically rerouting the network through cellular when needed). But the organization will need tooling and know-how to do this.
- Organize. Start defining the structure of the future agile organization, adding new cloud and software development skills to the existing mix of talent. Software-defined networks will require carriers and enterprises to merge their IT and network capabilities.
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Start planning for a disaggregated network and take ownership of the cost structure.
Consider how to simplify the complexity and aggregate the disaggregation that Open RAN brings.
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Establish automation DNA in your organization.
Start defining the structure of the future agile organization, adding new cloud and software development skills to the existing mix of talent.
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Ride the Open RAN Wave
It’s still early days for Open RAN. The technologies and the ecosystem are still evolving. But the pace of change is picking up. Open RAN is a springboard to a future-proof network architecture. And enterprises should be getting ready to jump onboard.
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