Open RAN, the disaggregation of the radio access network into interconnected parts defined by open, standards-based, interoperable interfaces and using open, standards-based protocols for communicating over those interfaces, is the way forward for the telecoms industry. For the O-RAN vision to be successfully realised, however, core principles will need to be followed. Interoperability is at the top of the list.
For network operators, “opening” the Radio Access Network (Open RAN) puts several advantages quickly within reach. It’s worth taking a moment to briefly re-cap these.
Among its key benefits, Open RAN will drive:
Diversification of the supplier ecosystem
This means telcos will be able to avoid vendor lock-in by replacing vendor-proprietary interfaces with a fully disaggregated RAN based on open standards from different vendors, perhaps chosen for specific use cases, rather than depending on a single supplier.
Service innovation becoming easier to introduce
By breaking the RAN up into component parts, each of which can be separately reconfigured. O-RAN standards are freely accessible to all third-party software developers, likely resulting in the development of new types of services built on the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC). This will enable telcos to make their networks a much more relevant resource for both enterprise and consumer applications.
Lowering the total cost of ownership
Managing the lifecycle of disaggregated, cloud-native RAN functions will be automated. Open RAN will reduce the network TCO by evolving the network in a continuous integration/ continuous delivery (CI/CD) cycle rather than through costly investment cycles.
New revenue opportunities can be unlocked
Telcos can customise RAN hardware and software in an open-RAN deployments allowing them to deliver bespoke features based on specific use cases and deployment scenarios.
But for Open RAN to deliver on its potential, there are challenges to overcome. Generally, these involve the need to adhere to four key principles:
Allowing Open RAN elements to be sourced from multiple suppliers and implemented in innovative ways
Creating an open, neutral environment in which suppliers can test new solutions against standards
Ensuring the disaggregated elements in the Open RAN work together in a fully functional way, at least equalling the performance of legacy solutions.
Enabling suppliers to innovate and differentiate based on product features and performance.
In this blog, we’ll look in a little more detail at the third of those: demonstrated interoperability.
It’s obvious that standardised interfaces and protocols must exist between the different parts of the RAN. These are necessary albeit not, on their own, sufficient to ensure the broader goals of Open RAN are achieved.
In fact, history tells us that telecoms has experienced many open, standardised interfaces which do not ensure interoperability. That’s because while open in principle, they sometimes do not provide enough specificity of detail, leaving implementation options vague and open to interpretation enabling vendors to include proprietary extensions. These then have the knock-on effect of preventing choice, precisely the outcome Open RAN seeks in principle to negate.
For Open RAN to ensure true interoperability of products, it must be able to demonstrate the actual operation of products sourced from multiple vendors in a realistic environment, without degradation of either performance or functionality. Demonstrating interoperability thus pushes beyond simply compliance with open standards and towards proving evidence of the desired interoperability, regardless of site or environment. It’s the practice rather than the theory of viability, if you like.
The need for interoperability is also pervasive. It’s required not just between the functional network elements in a single base station butt also between different base stations and he core management networks that support the RAN. This is challenging. Historically, open interfaces designed for this purpose have fallen short of delivering on the promise of multi-vendor interoperability due to proprietary management approaches and these will have to be overcome if Open RAN is to be able to demonstrate the performance, security, and efficiency gains, at least on par with existing market solutions, that are required.
Is demonstrated interoperability and, indeed, are open disaggregation, standards-based compliance, and implementation neutrality achievable? The simple answer is that the telecoms industry will have to find a way. Communications networks are essential infrastructure for modern societies – despite which, the number of vendors providing key infrastructure components has significantly declined in recent years. Increasing the diversity of suppliers is therefore essential. Without Open RAN, security and resilience concerns will increase, barriers to innovation will prevail, and competition will suffer.
For the telecoms market to flourish, the interchangeability of parts in the RAN is critical; parts that can more easily be compared by prospective purchasers, combined in ways to produce custom systems without sacrificing economies of scale, to be replaced easily to avoid vulnerabilities and to create a wider accessible market for suppliers. Interoperability – not available within the RAN – is key to Open RAN’s success.
In an Open RAN environment where different vendors supply core components, network operators will face new challenges ensuring that products and solutions from multiple vendors can communicate with each other. This will require monitoring to validate and oversees the various components involved.
While overcoming these (and other) issues mean Open RAN may take time to gain traction, early adopters driven by remote network coverage goals and often small cells and private networks are already driving the market forward. To succeed, they will require new technology and new partners. One example of a successful early implementation relies on a partnership with Utel to validate the interoperability of network components and troubleshoot both pre-deployment and, as it moves to live deployments, in-service Open RAN.
Although presently still nascent, with challenges that remain to be overcome, as we have seen in this blog, Open RAN networks are already becoming increasingly popular due to the range of advantages they deliver. To leverage these, it is critical that operators quickly identify the right partner to enable and assure their Open RAN projects.
Those suppliers with first-mover experience fulfilling this vital role, like Utel, will likely play a key part in the proliferation of Open RAN networks in the coming years. Watch out for more news regarding our Open RAN monitoring solutions, which help validate and demonstrate interoperability in test networks, PoCs and live, production environments – a key tool to help you secure the promise of Open RAN.