Currently, Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson dominate telco. These three giants share 80% of the market. Using proprietary hardware, architecture, and software systems, their networks are effectively black boxes.
However, the advent of 5G is likely to change that. The new standard, which uses higher frequency radio waves, facilitates the use of Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) tech.
Ericsson.com’s Jason S. Boswell writes that Open RAN is “an industry term” that encompasses radio access network architecture. Open interoperable interfaces, RAN virtualization, Big Data and AI-enabled RAN are part of this architecture. (Boswell differentiates between Open RAN and O-RAN, which refers to the O-RAN Alliance, a group of interested companies putting together standards protocols, and OpenRAN, which refers to initiatives driven by the Telecom Infra Project’s OpenRAN Project Group.)
Here’s what we might expect from Open RAN in the coming years.
O-RAN meets 5G: How it works
With 4G, each telco antenna tower requires multiple hardware units. 5G’s greater bandwidth and faster download speeds allows vendors to use software to virtualize and containerize the functions of this hardware. The software is run through a core mobile communications facility. Network operators can customize their own services using any number of vendors instead of being beholden to the big three suppliers.
According to venturebeat.com, companies like VMWare, Red Hat and emerging startups like Portworx, Rancher Labs, and Robin.io are coming up with the necessary virtualization, automation, and containerization solutions. Rather than proprietary black boxes, the new networks will offer full transparency. Cloud and edge tech from the likes of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft can provide the basic network management stack.
As it did with IT, AI will reduce operational costs of networks. Operators will be able to run their networks at one tenth of the current labor cost.As telecoms move from 4G to 5G, more companies will be able to establish their own networks. Click To Tweet
IT is actually a model of what disruption to telco might look like. Just as the growth of open-source computing made entry-level easier to scale for new entrants on the IT scene, 5G will open up the building of networks to players without the deep pockets of the major players.
“Hardware’s less and less important because more and more functions are implemented in software,” Ivan Seskar, associate director at Rutgers University’s WINLAB, recently told networkworld.com. “Once you have that, you’re trying to make sure that this software is somewhat standardized. If you really look at the technological drivers, it’s the need for customized deployments of communications systems.”
AI is another driver of the new networks. With 5G, networks will become increasingly complex. The densification and richer and more demanding applications will require the networks to leverage new learning-based technologies to automate operational network functions and reduce operating expenses. Operators will need to use these emerging deep-learning techniques to embed intelligence in every layer of the RAN architecture.
The future of 5G and Open RAN
Ericsson.com’s Rene Summer predicts that the industry “will thrive if commercial players are free to make their own unrestrictive investment choices without the imposition of undue regulations and requirements.” Competitiveness of different solutions, architectures and merits of technical performance drove growth in wireless communications systems in the first place, and the new possibilities of 5G will fuel the next generation of innovation.
According to venturebeat.com, telco disruption is already underway in some parts of the world. In Japan, Rakuten Mobile is “a renegade telco entrant” with its own 5G network. In India, Reliance Jio Infocomm has become the biggest mobile network operator by using open-source components—although in its case, Reliance built its own 4G network.
But a major disruption is still years away—and is still very much in the development stage.
“It [Open RAN technology] is at about sub-one percent” of the market, researcher Gabriel Brown told lightreading.com. “It’s going to grow but it’s going to take time to make a big jump. What we think of Open RAN now will be something else by the time 2023 or 2025 comes along.”