Our panellists from Vodafone, Telefonica and Rakuten Mobile are very much at the sharp end of creating, testing and now beginning to deploy Open RAN solutions.
Open RAN specifies the disaggregation of the radio access network (RAN) technology into a stack of many parts with open interfaces, that can be realised in hardware and software from many different suppliers. This openness enables a much more diverse and flexible supply chain of providers, including merchant silicon providers for both RF and baseband. Open RAN enables modern software methodologies such as CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery/deployment) to enable new software versions to be deployed very regularly - even daily, as needed. Having more open interfaces enables the inclusion of AI approaches and drives advances in network management and operational performance capabilities, thus increasing capability, improving resilience and reducing operating costs.
Andy Dunkin from Vodafone spoke of the journey that his organisation had been on, creating an ecosystem of suppliers and partners, and being able to accommodate more diverse customers and their various needs. Open RAN is allowing Vodafone to bring back more control in house with more rapid iterations to RAN capability now possible.
Juan Carlos Garcia from Telefonica spoke about the remote interventions in network management that become possible with more open interfaces, and the ability to scale up and down aspects of network performance dynamically. Capacity for each base station can now be based on demand, improving efficiency. It’s now easier to apply more AI and machine learning techniques to optimise the network, and this means that the network becomes much more adaptable.
So how are we doing in terms of commercial scale roll-outs? The message is that Open RAN has left the labs and is now rolling out commercially. Vodafone is moving from trials to first commercial deployments, initially in the UK, with 2,500 sites. Sushil Rawat from Rakuten Mobile spoke of having deployed 15,000 4G base stations with Open RAN and an initial 1,000 with 5G, using a disaggregated software and hardware solution. Telefonica has been running extensive trials for the past three years, and is preparing for rollout with scale from 2022 onwards.
What have been some of the key learnings for operators during this initial phase?
Andy from Vodafone spoke of the importance of the key industry forums TIP and O-RAN, and how important it has been to incorporate operator requirements in a way that has avoided fragmentation. Working on both the high-level and low-level designs together with vendors against a common set of requirements and objectives has built momentum and created strong partnerships.
Juan spoke of the importance of disaggregation at the management layer of the RAN, by removing network complexity from the management layers on top. This assists with the provision of key network management functions including network functions such as backup and restore, self-healing and recovery, cloud infrastructure orchestration and an effective CI/CD pipeline.
Finally our panellists were asked how Open RAN makes the world a better place. Open RAN is a key capability enabler to be able to reach more people more efficiently who need access to communication services, extending coverage and reach - and so reducing the scale of the digital divide and democratising access to the Internet.
Certainly a very inspiring goal for the industry to keep striving towards.