The Radio Access Network (RAN) has been an essential element of each new generation of mobile communication technology, providing subscribers with the continued connectivity they expect. Over the decades, the RAN has been subject to ongoing technological progression (to improve the quality of service, raise data rates, support new applications, etc.) through enhancements being made at regular intervals. The majority of these have (relatively speaking at least) been fairly subtle. Looking ahead, these kind of incremental alterations are no longer going to be enough. What is called for, instead, is dramatic and decisive disruption of the RAN at its very foundations.
In the past, the main objectives that mobile operators had were all pretty much the same (in terms of bandwidth, latency, expanse of coverage and suchlike), but there is an increasing divergence now being witnessed. As a consequence, these operators want to have the scope to experiment with new business models and offer a broader portfolio of services. Unfortunately, there are currently sizeable obstacles in the way – with not only engineering challenges to consider, but commercial factors also having a significant influence here.
RAN architectures have effectively, until this point, been dictated by the large and long-established network equipment manufacturers – who have offered solutions based on proprietary technologies. However, since there has been a lack of interoperability between the hardware from these manufacturers at their physical interfaces, the operator customers they serve have found themselves limited as to what they can realistically achieve. The emergence of open interfaces will finally change all that forever. It will allow mobile operators to bring in new technologies from a much wider array of equipment vendors – picking the ones which are best positioned to help them achieve their specific RAN objectives.
Through the arrival of open interfaces, there will finally be the prospect of component parts sourced from different vendors being seamless integrated together to form fully optimized RAN solutions, without the risk of incompatibility issues arising. An ecosystem comprising numerous different companies is now starting to form, in order to serve these new market openings – with each company able to offer its own specialist expertise, bringing new ideas and greater ingenuity to the sector. In some cases, certain companies in this ecosystem have already been able to demonstrate multifaceted RAN reference designs that showcase their respective technologies and the interoperability that exists between them.
To further advance the adoption of open interfaces and encourage interoperability between different vendors’ solutions, the O-RAN Alliance organized its first 5G Plugfest event at the end of last year. Involving 35 of the mobile business’ leading companies in the demonstrations (comprised of both vendors and operators too), gatherings were staged in three different labs across the globe (one in China, one in Japan, and another in the USA) – with representatives from over a hundred organizations attending.
In addition to disaggregation, RAN upheaval is being experienced through increasing virtualization as well. Via this it will be possible to allocate resources to where they are most needed – enabling the network’s available baseband processing capacity to be pooled, rather than having it restricted to the cell in which it is situated. This will mean that supply and demand can be far better matched to one another, with the overall processing resource thereby able to focus its attention on particular places where activity is at its highest at different stages of the day – so that intense load pressures can be better balanced out and service outages prevented.
It is likely that the upshot of such developments is mobile operators finding themselves in a position to do a lot more with what they’ve got. They won’t have to put as much processing overhead in any one location, but will have a more adaptable network that is able to address ever-changing traffic needs, both from a spatial and a temporal perspective. As a result, they will have the opportunity to explore new use cases, and find the best ways via which to monetize them, while still looking to keep both their capital investment and operational costs under control.
The new RAN era is going to be highly advantageous for those looking to establish private networks too, as it will push down the cost barriers involved substantially. This will mean that enterprise campuses, industrial processing plants and various other large sites will be able to deploy their own infrastructure (using current LTE technology, or in the near future 5G technology).
In conclusion, the way that mobile networks are constructed is set to go through a major and unprecedented sea-change. The reliance on expensive proprietary technologies, that so heavily defined these networks previously, is finally being ditched in favor of more cost-effective and flexible alternatives that are based on open interfaces and vendor interoperability. Through this new approach, mobile operators will have all the building blocks required to implement RAN architectures that are more proficient at attending to future use case demands, and can also evolve with these demands accordingly.