TIP OpenRAN: Shifting to Disaggregated Radio Access Networks

Communications mediums such as phones and the internet are a vital part of modern-day life. This is why there are millions of cell sites across the globe.  At present, there are over 9 billion connections in this $ 1 trillion industry.

As the world moves to 5G, there is a greater need for operators to adopt software-driven RAN with open implementation and open interfaces. As such, many industry players are switching to modular and open platforms from single-vendor systems. To become optimized for cloud deployment and operation, other vendors are switching to disaggregated virtual RANs (vRANs) by becoming more software-centric.

The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) is a collective initiative in the mobile network industry aimed at using disaggregation, open interfaces, and developing reference implementations to improve telecom networking. TIP OpenRAN Project Group is a RAN initiative to boost interoperability, collaborative working, reference implementations, field trials, and the development of pathways that facilitate the deployment of OpenRAN solutions commercially.

This paper takes a comparative look at the project group in relation to the industry to highlight its successes and see what is in store for OpenRAN development in the coming future.

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

OpenRAN Industry Outlook

According to an Omdia report, the value of the mobile RAN equipment market was worth $33 billion in 2019. Projections suggest that by 2023 the market will be worth $36 billion. However, the biggest players largely dominate the market. For instance, the top five vendors account for 95% of the industry.

To succeed in this field, operators must have a large geographical footprint and access large volumes of product. Some of the main challenges RAN equipment operators face are:

  • Little to no competition as well as a shortage of suppliers
  • Licensing restrictions and proprietary interfaces translate to limited feature development and software control
  • Limited options as the largest vendors have control of the products available

It is due to such limitations that the OpenRan initiative was set up. Its primary objectives include:

  • To create a diverse ecosystem that offers vendors more supply chain options
  • Adoption of cloud technologies to achieve disaggregation and automation
  • Help operators achieve real-time control and enhance system performance via new algorithms

Demand for OpenRAN

Thus far, TIP OpenRAN has attracted demand from operators from across the globe, albeit at a small scale. With the current deployments and evidence of the effectiveness of the OpenRAN concept, there are strong indications for large scale uptake. Some of the institutions that have begun trial for the commercial use of OpenRAN systems include:

  • Vodafone- As well as being one of the organizations conducting the most extensive OpenRAN trials, Vodafone is also a co-chair of the OpenRAN Project Group. Its trials are being conducted in the UK, South Africa, Mozambique, Turkey, Ireland, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also, Vodafone has issued an open request for proposal to attract OpenRAN suppliers for its European infrastructure, which has over 100,000 cell sites.
  • Rakuten- Though Rakuten, the Japanese mobile company, only joined TIP in late 2019, it has established the largest vRAN network in the world. By April 2020, their vRAN infrastructure had over 4000 cell sites, with plans to roll out more.
  • Telefonica- With several hundred live sites in Peru and other regions, Telefonica has one of the most extensive OpenRAN projects. In addition, Telefonica also has a TIP interoperability testing lab used to help deliver a continuous delivery (CD) / continuous integration (CI) framework for OpenRAN.

Other Notable Regions Displaying Interest in OpenRAN

The demand for OpenRAN is fast spreading across the globe. This is evident, as operators from different regions have announced deployments and trials for TIP OpenRAN systems. Good examples include:

  • With a goal of conducting field trials in the near future, Edocto, a subsidiary of the Axaita Group and Celcom Axaita, both of Malaysia, are collaborating for lab trials.
  • Smartfren and Indosat Ooredoo of Indonesia will be the first companies to conduct field trials for OpenRAN in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Etisalat, a company in the Middle East, has announced that it will extend its OpenRAN trails beyond Saudi Arabia by the end of 2020.
  • Already with its TIP Community Lab, Deutsche Telekom plans to launch a European Open Test and Integration Center to test the O-RAN-complaint RU-DU solutions intended for the Open Fronhaul TIP Plugfest.
  • Sprint is set to begin its OpenRAN trials for 5G NR technologies in North America after submitting a request for information (RFI).

TIP OpenRAN Project Group

The TIP OpenRAN Project Group was initiated in 2017. Its primary objective was to showcase the feasibility of using a commercial software-based RAN that allows for modification and can run on general use hardware. In line with TIP practice and being the operator members, Telefonica and Vodafone sponsored this project group.

RAN Ecosystem With Software at the Center

One of the basic tenets of OpenRAN is to develop baseband software that is programmable and can function on general-purpose processing platforms (GPPPs). As a result, it is expected that there will be more hardware options available in the future. There may also be more silicon options like field-programmable gate rays (FPGAs) depending on the use case. These will be used to enhance Layer 1 acceleration.

In comparison with the single-vendor model largely used today, OpenRAN makes it possible for operators to have different parts of their systems supplied by different vendors. This affords them greater flexibility and the ability to customize systems to suit their particular needs.

The success of the OpenRAN Project Group was hinged on the individual expertise of participating organizations. These are primarily smaller RAN technology vendors but with sizeable incomes and an established base of suppliers that use new innovative systems. 

Only Intel Xeon processors have been used for the OpenRAN projects. This is to test the capacity and functionality of different software when deployed on the GPPPs. However, non-x86 and newer Intel silicon processors will be introduced later on.

One of the main reasons for using the Intel Xeon processor is because of FlexRAN, a software for reference Layer 1 (L1) that is useful in initiating the project and shortening the time required for the development. FlexRAN uses CPU instruction sets such as the CPU architecture building blocks and AVX instruction sets to write L1 software. In addition, it is possible to run L1 on an Intel GPP CPU using FlexRAN, while ensuring the real-time needs for RAN are met.

However, it is important to note that these are findings from OpenRAN trials using L1, and will not be used for commercial deployment. For commercial operations purposes, Altran and Radisys have provided reference L2 and L3 implementations that enable the creation of digital baseband units (BBUs).

Participants in OpenRAN Deployment

There has also been an emergence of independent software vendors such as Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Altiostar, Tecore Networks, and Baicells that have developed baseband software that can run on reference hardware, for L1, L2, and L3. Since such software is intended for commercial operations, it has been subjected to extensive tests to ensure they meet desired requirements. The software has also been used during OpenRAN field trials as well as live commercial operations.

OpenRAN Project Group Effectiveness

To ensure that the initiative achieved desired results, there were performance targets set for the OpenRAN systems by TIP members. Some of the areas of focus are MIMO rank, bandwidth, setup success rates, number of users, and handover performance, among others. Besides, to ensure sufficient coverage for different case scenarios such as urban and rural settings, different benchmarks were put in place.

It is such system-level key performance indicators that enabled participants to test the viability of OpenRAN. Also, a predetermined method of assessing its success allowed participants to share data and learn from each other to improve the system. Ultimately, this is what facilitated the move to field trials.

What Next for TIP OpenRAN?

What initially aroused equal measures of intrigue and skepticism is now the subject of global interest. With successful case studies to imitate and learn from, many operators have plans in place for the switch to OpenRAN systems. As more organizations invest in trials and begin cultivating relationships with vendors, it is expected that there will be increased adoption of OpenRAN systems in the coming years.

How Will OpenRAN Cope with 5G, New Silicon Models, and Edge Cloud?

Though most of the market relies on 2G, 3G, and 4G, the investment and rollout of 5G infrastructure is increasing exponentially. As such, there is a need for the development of 5G OpenRAN. To address this, TIP has established an OpenRAN 5G NR Project Group, which will charter the path towards 5G OpenRAN.

When it comes to the GPPPs that is used for RAN software, Heavy Reading projects to see progress in the coming years. This will help improve radio signaling frequency and help with power consumption, density, and costs. Even with the promise this area is displaying, what’s still unclear is the type of GPPP that will be used in the long run.

Though there are still a lot of questions to be answered in regard to OpenRAN, the success of the TIP OpenRAN Project Group has ensured that OpenRAN will be a key feature for operators in the future.      

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

You may also like

DDA deployment

DAA Deployment Automation: All you Need to Know

infrastructure provisioning

What Is Infrastructure Provisioning?

Distributed Access Architecture Update