OpenRAN: Concept & Players

The Radio Access Network (RAN) is the part of the network that is installed in each site or location. It is basically made up by the Base Band Unit (BBU) that controls the operation of the entire radio base station and connects it to the network, the Remote Radio Units (RRU) that generate the radio signals at the selected frequency, power and modulation, and the antennas that allow the propagation of that radio frequencies. The RAN has big, medium, and small cells and is the most expensive part of the infrastructure.

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Until now, the RRU and the BBU were always from the same provider. Although its interface, called CPRI, is part of the standard, each vendor has made its own adjustments so the RRU of one cannot work with the BBU of another.

Although both modules have evolved during the last years incorporating some new great functionalities such as Soft Defined Radio, Carrier Aggregation, MIM, and NBIoT, the lack of interoperability always has limited operators to seek new solutions, and entrants to be able to access the RAN.

OpenRAN is a concept that started a few years ago. It promises to be an alternative to traditional access networks providers’ solutions. We are talking about Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, ZTE, and even Samsung.

In OpenRAN, there are no interoperability limitations since all components use open interfaces between them. OpenRAN is an alternative way to build mobile access networks, with greater flexibility and more competition, since they allow the use of radios from one provider with the controller of another.

Another additional advantage is that the functions of the controller can be virtualized, being installed on standard COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) servers. Also, as they are now just software, multiple controllers can be virtualized on the same infrastructure. This has been called vRAN.

The main advantages of OpenRAN are:

  • Cost savings due to the use of standard equipment.
  • Eliminates o reduces the “Vendor Lock-In” thanks to the standardization that allows the use of multiple providers.
  • Reduces the entry barrier for small operators as it allows Multiple Operators to use a Shared Network.
  • Increases Agility in the implementation of new functionalities, thanks to the virtualization of the controllers.

These initiatives and organizations are linked to OpenRAN:

Operators from the USA, Europe, and Japan created the xRAN Forum in 2016 to standardize an alternative to traditional hardware-based RAN. It focuses on decoupling the RAN control plane from the user plane, building eNodeB software that uses COTS, and publishing open interfaces for both north and southbound. Its members were mostly traditional mobile operators.

In those days, Chinese operators mobilized by China Mobile also created the C-RAN Allianz with similar objectives to those of the xRAN Forum.

At the MWC 2018  AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO, and Orange jointly announced the creation of the O-RAN Alliance, marking an even more considerable global effort to drive new levels of openness in the next generation radio access network. O-RAN combines and extends the efforts of the C-RAN Allianz and the xRAN Forum in a single operator-led effort.

During the same MWC 2018, Cisco announced the creation of the Open vRAN initiative that seeks to implement and structure open IP networks for fronthaul, the connection between radio equipment and controllers, allowing new types of routing, that is much more efficient.

Telecom Infra Project (TIP) was co-founded in 2016 by Facebook, Intel, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom, and SK Telecom. Its mission is to unbundle software and hardware and it has more than 500 members. In November 2017, Vodafone contributed its software-defined RAN project to TIP and created the TIPs OpenRAN Group. The group’s goal is to develop General Purpose Processing Platforms (GPPP) based on RAN technologies and unbundled software.

OpenRAN Group focuses on implementation and how to build software and hardware, while O-RAN Alliance is more focused on specifications. The two groups talk to each other and share many of the same members.

In February 2020, a group of companies that include operators and technology providers created the Open RAN Policy Coalition to promote policies that will promote the adoption of open and interoperable solutions on the Radio Access Network (RAN) as a way to create innovation, stimulate competition, and expand the supply chain for advanced wireless technologies, including 5G.

At last, in May 2020, the GSMA, the organization that brings together the entire mobile telecommunications ecosystem, announced its partnership with the O-RAN Alliance to accelerate the adoption of Open Access technologies.

Asked about that, Andre Fuetsch president of the O-RAN Alliance and AT&T CTO said: “As the demand of data and mobile communications grows in the 5G era, a global and cross-border approach is needed to rethink RAN. GSMA’s collaboration with the O-RAN Alliance is exactly the kind of global effort it takes for everyone, operators, and suppliers, to succeed in this new generation.”

As we see, several groups are working with different approaches to making the RAN more open, using standardized interfaces and standard network elements. The challenge is getting it ready to add to the technological portfolio when the massive rollout of 5G takes place.

OpenRAN promises low costs and fewer deployment times, and those will undoubtedly be the conditions for new applications, such as Private Mobile Networks (e.g., industries 4.0) or Public Networks of Specific Uses (e.g., a complete Smart City solution).

Symphonica from Intraway may be an extraordinary solution for integrating all the elements of these new OpenRAN networks because it is a great orchestrator and its ability to be easily implemented in the cloud.

Learn more about Intraway’s Symphonica, a codeless provisioning platform that supports complex telecommunications network automation, and adds flexibility and agility.

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