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Deciphering Open RAN

  • 5 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 1 Feb 2022
  • Last modified 1 Feb 2022
Exploring the opportunities of open access connectivity in the 5G era by Andy Welch, Technical Director at WM5G

As connectivity is evolving, Open RAN (Radio Access Network) has rapidly become a hot topic for the 5G industry and the players within it. As we seek to improve connectivity across communities and extend network access to encompass more aspects of our daily lives, the concept of interoperable solutions become more attractive.   

Under the current RAN model, components can only be sourced from a small number of suppliers. This means that the RAN market is dominated by a handful of organisations that do not design their infrastructure to be interoperable, forcing network operators to depend on equipment from a single vendor. 

Under the revolutionary Open RAN concept, networks can be built using components from multiple suppliers, connected over standardised open interfaces.  By encouraging the growth and implementation of open standards, more vendors can enter the market of building networks, which ultimately will bring us closer achieve superfast connectivity at scale. 

A greater number of suppliers ensures increased flexibility and resilience and encourages competition which will reduce costs, create more bespoke solutions, and improve capacity for connectivity, supporting emerging digital technologies.

Current challenges and scope for growth

The UK government wants to use Open RAN and market collaboration as enablers for speeding up the process for deploying 5G networks, ensuring optimum user experience and continuity of service.

Their goal is for the majority of the UK to be covered by a 5G signal by 2027, ensuring the benefits of 5G can be shared by all.

In order to meet this ambition, we must encourage market competition and growth by proving integration of new technologies, solving some of the operations and maintenance complexities around shared standards, and improving performance of the hardware and software used for connectivity. 

We need to encourage the big players in the industry to adopt open standards and support and nurture SMEs and new players entering the market who are creating alternative solutions. 

With a greater number of vendors, we must also ensure the smooth operation and market integration between different solutions. These tools are still in their relative infancy, with the larger players having found their own respective solutions. However, in an open standards world, it is essential that we have a shared framework in place to ensure cohesion. 

Performance and integration are also critical considerations when looking to scale up deployment in urban settings as Open-RAN creates ample opportunity to seek out and trial new models. 

For instance, the move towards multiple small cell stations installed across towns rather than the bigger network towers of the past, we’re now able to design the infrastructure to be more sympathetic to the local architecture. By sharing the radio network, we are also able to consolidate the infrastructure from multiple operators, decreasing the impact of installation and street furniture clutter.

Through large scale deployments in towns and cities, we must also navigate some of the challenges currently limiting network performance, such as reflections from buildings or moving traffic as well as ensuring that devices can reliably operate in harmony, day in, day out. This is where real world testing and proving true integration becomes crucial and is a challenge the industry is working to solve. 

Supporting the urban deployment of Open RAN

For the last three years WM5G has worked to remove barriers to the urban deployment of 5G. This ‘barrier busting’ approach has  to date seen the West Midlands the best-connected region, by telecoms advisory company Umlaut. 

We are now using our experience to support the government’s 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy, promoting the deployment of advanced digital connectivity across the UK, growing the supply chain and improving future resilience. The  facilitation and creation of Open RAN solutions will be a key step on this journey. 

A first step in this is our participation in the £2.4m ARI-5G project, a government supported R&D programme with partners including TIP, BT, Accelerant, Viavi, Amdocs and Attocore. This project is carrying out leading edge R&D on new Open RAN features such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and then testing them in a typical dense urban environment here in Birmingham.

This is supported by the specialist knowledge and insight we have gained from the wide array of existing connected facilities and testbed environments developed across the West Midlands and our 5G testbed at the Birmingham Knowledge Quarter (BKQ); located next to Aston and Birmingham City Universities. 

The BKQ is home to ‘5PRING’, the UK’s first 5G commercial applications accelerator programme. 5PRING helps organisations to accelerate their business by connecting technological disruptors with corporates to generate 5G-powered business solutions.  As an open platform, 5PRING fosters innovation through working with start-ups, enterprise organisations, sector experts and technology providers. 

The long-term ambition of our work is to help to develop and test new solutions to support wider urban deployment. The West Midlands is exceptionally well placed for this, thanks to the successful widespread deployment of 5G achieved to date. This enables critical Open RAN work to take place, testing how different networks and solutions can interconnect into a seamless service in the real world. 

Future of Open RAN

Fundamental to achieving true widespread adoption of Open-RAN is the acceleration of the research and development and integration testing of the technologies, software and deployment models to ensure viability in dense urban environments.

At WM5G we have facilitated collaboration between local authorities, mobile network operators and industry to ensure the smooth, fast roll out of the vital infrastructure required to support 5G and that it can be replicated across communities through our tried-and-tested ‘barrier busting’ approach.

We look forward to applying the same thinking and collaboration to support businesses, councils and network operators in laying the foundations for shared open standards for connectivity, creating a thriving market resilient and abreast to weather future connectivity challenges.

 Please get in touch through the WM5G website if you would like to find out more about Open RAN, how to get involved and the wider benefits of 5G. 

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