Four reasons telecom must walk before it can run to Open RAN and 5G
The move to Open RAN will be a worthwhile, arduous journey for telecom and 5G, if we’re collectively able to overcome four key challenges.
The myriad benefits of Open RAN have been well-documented, with the promise of lower costs, diverse supply chains and gear interoperability praised from every corner of telecom. Notable operators and vendors are on board. UK Government is investing, recognising the critical role mobile communications plays in not just connectivity, but our national security. With benefits spanning 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G deployments, a growing ecosystem is in hot pursuit.
Yet, as the Open RAN movement expands, so does its complexity. More investments attach more strings. More stakeholders bring more perspectives to manage. Greater ambitions result in more to sort before activity can scale. The work still to be done to ensure everything will work as intended requires Herculean effort, with every strategic consideration weighed carefully. In other words, while speed is always important, we must proceed safely with caution.
Spirent recognises four Open RAN realities that must be addressed before this important technology movement can begin to meet its true potential, especially with 5G in mind:
Interoperability: The RAN has always been complex but for the first time, we’ll see a range of vendors – some of them completely new to the industry – building components that need to seamlessly integrate with each other. True plug-and-play will not come without considerable push and shove. Interoperability testing and validation of these interworked environments will take time, diligence and meticulous processes.
Performance: The dream of new, rapidly developed RAN architectures that are as highly performant as the tried-and-true networks they’ll replace is certainly within reach. But getting there will require all involved to stretch far beyond comfort zones to make it happen. Traditional radio vendors have spent years investing in intellectual property, scrubbing bugs and scaling performance over time. Meeting or exceeding this high bar is what will be key to Open RAN’s success. There are some things you just don’t learn until you’re in the field. For that reason, we expect iterative performance increases, perhaps initially ramping rural deployments that serve less customers to understand where the biggest challenges exist.
Resilience: Before deploying Open RAN in a meaningful way, every operator’s eyes will be on stability, reliability and security. Network equipment manufacturers have traditionally met these requirements under intense deployment pressure. In an open environment, the buck doesn’t sit with any one participant. Individual component software will constantly be updated. Hardware will be upgraded. One weak link can bring an entire architecture crashing down. Stringent advanced testing will be a given. But ongoing, real-time, proactive testing, validation and assurance strategies will also be part of any successful Open RAN deployment.
Cost efficiency: With as much as 80% of mobile network costs concentrated in the RAN, it is no wonder operators are eager to shave every bit of spend possible. Commoditised hardware, more diverse supply chains and intense competition in Open RAN environments certainly have the potential to deliver on this front. But while it’s cheaper to buy COTS components—and spread spend across a more diverse ecosystem and fully leverage the cloud—the cost of deploying, managing and maintaining these new RAN ecosystems will not be insignificant. Remember, that was previously the vendor’s job when they were fully responsible for assuring the end-to-end RAN stack. Will the savings outweigh the necessary additional investment? This is where automation, remote testing capabilities and rapid validation will come into play to make the economics make sense.
The move to Open RAN will once again push telecom into unchartered territory. The arduous journey will have been worth it if we’re collectively able to overcome each of the challenges noted above.
By Steve Douglas, Head of 5G Strategy, Spirent Communications, the leading global provider of automated test and assurance solutions for networks, cybersecurity, and positioning. Steve helps to define technical direction, new innovative solutions, and market leading disruptive technologies which make a real difference.
With 20 years’ experience in telecommunications, Steve has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with multiple service providers, start-ups and Tier 1 OEMs, helping them drive innovation and transformation. An ardent believer in connected technology, Steve strives to challenge, blur, and break down the silos which prevent innovation and business success.
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