vRAN and Open RAN: The technologies enabling 5G to transform the planet
5G promises to be a planet-transforming technology even more than Velcro was and mobile network operators (MNOs) will be in the thick of that transformation. Or they could be, says Ofir Zemer, CEO of Cellwize, if they take full advantage of 5G’s accompanying technologies, Virtual Radio Access Network (vRAN) and Open RAN.
For it is those technologies that really will push the 5G revolution forward. By virtualising networks, MNOs will be able to significantly reduce costs and time as they roll out new 5G deployments; Open RAN, meanwhile, gives them the flexibility to take full advantage of 5G, offering customers rapidly deployed customised services and fully flexible private networks with super-fast speeds and near-zero latency.
It will be a drastic change from the current situation where MNOs can only offer services supported by the hardware and the hardware vendors they deploy.
While vRAN is a crucial building block of the revolution, it’s the software-based deployment of Open RAN, largely divorced from hardware and completely codable, that will give MNOs the freedom to deploy that planet-transforming technology.
To reach that goal, MNOs need to develop a transformation plan, one that will get them from the current deployment of 4G networks to Open RAN 5G networks, and that path runs through vRAN. In fact, many MNOs are already utilising vRAN; a Heavy Reading survey (November 2020) of operators shows that 59% have deployed vRANs, with 28% having done so on 4G LTE networks.
While MNOs don’t have to virtualise everything to operate their 4G networks all the support they need is built into that hardware they acquired from the legacy network equipment providers (NEPs) they could save significant amounts of money, time and effort by virtualising components of their networks, including baseband units, gNB, eNodeB, distributed units (DU) and central units (CU).
4G, being already heavily deployed, doesn’t save a lot from virtualisation, but 5G, only being deployed massively now, definitely does because of its software-based deployment. With vRAN, they will be able to deploy their 5G networks in a much more efficient manner, enabling them to significantly cut costs by utilising white-label hardware that do not contain any built-in software protocols, developing software-based services that will enable them to route their resources as they see fit such as outfitting a manufacturing plant with a private network that will allow near-full automation of a precise production process that requires full connectivity and zero latency between components. With the entire network software-based, MNOs will be able to utilise their resources to provide customers with the services they require.
Virtualisation and open-source technology also enable MNOs to operate both 4G and 5G networks simultaneously another advantage that would be impossible without vRAN and Open RAN. It will take time for the 5G revolution to fully flourish there’s a lot of hardware that needs to be deployed, and a lot of devices that need to be upgraded, so 4G will be around for some time to come.
vRAN and Open RAN allow MNOs to continue to offer 4G, while enabling 5G customers to take advantage of the new benefits it brings, such as private networks. 4G vRAN solutions are actually future proof, as they require only a software upgrade to support 5G.
With 5G networks operating in millimetre-wave and sub-6GHz spectrum bands, network operators will require a new level of cell site density for which virtualised RAN components deliver the IT scalability of software-driven functions that enable network scalable and agile network deployments.
Moreover, 5G networks are all about IT and cloud management, allowing MNOs to manage one platform on the cloud, thus simplifying network operations and reducing costs. Implementing vRAN thus represents a leap forward toward this goal and helps to unleash a much larger virtualisation opportunity and enables MNOs to apply some of those 5G benefits to 4G networks.
With virtualisation, MNOs will enable network operators to use industry-standard hardware, allowing the baseband processing to reside in central offices or centralised data centres; BBUs can be deployed on standard low-cost server hardware, obviating the need for high-cost purpose-built premium hardware.
In addition to the lower CAPEX, these virtualised solutions provide MNOs with lower operating costs at cell sites, such as lower power consumption. In addition, virtualised BBUs enable MNOs to place cell sites in more areas, reducing the cell site footprint requirements.
But improved 4G performance and lower costs are just a prelude to the real story, Fully-functional virtualised Open RAN based networks that will give MNOs the freedom to perhaps for the first time fairly compete in an open marketplace undominated by a few big names.
MNOs, of course, realise this, and they are scrambling to find the personnel, expertise and toolsets they need to get from here to there, utilising open APIs and enabling third parties and other external developers to develop the xApps and rApps that will be the centrepiece of 5G networks. 5G will indeed change the world and not only for the people that use it.
About the author
Ofir is an enterprise software executive with over 24 years’ experience in software and systems and 12 years of experience in enterprise software and solutions for the telecom industry. He is general manager with in-depth knowledge of product strategy, management, sales, and services.
Ofir has worked with the largest telecom groups in the world and built and cultivated Partner relationships with Tier-1 Vendors and System Integrators. He is also an entrepreneur he pioneered the contextual marketing segment of Enterprise Software for telecoms and an experienced venture capital investor with a successful record of investing in early-stage start-ups, formulating viable business models, forging business development with large partners and divesting.