The open RAN promise of greater cost-efficiencies will be broken without a fit-for-purpose OSS/BSS. If the back office can’t keep pace, telcos will struggle to take full advantage of network advances.

Open RAN is picking up industry momentum. Big telco beasts, including Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone, are urging suppliers to adhere to ‘open’ principles in the radio access network (RAN), where software is disaggregated from general purpose processing hardware.

The promise of greater cost-efficiencies and avoidance of vendor lock-ins are strong motivations. There are no exclusive relationships in the open RAN world and suppliers, if all goes to plan, can be replaced with little extra effort. This is not case with the big, ‘monolithic’ vendors, which bundle together proprietary software with their own hardware. Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia are still the top- three suppliers in terms of RAN market share.

Open RAN is not quite ready for prime time. A lot of commercial trials and pilots tend to be done in rural and less-populated areas, but adoption is growing and is a firm direction of industry travel.

One of the most eye-catching deployments is by Rakuten Mobile, a greenfield mobile network operator (MNO) in Japan that has launched 5G using open RAN tech. Germany’s Drillisch, another new MNO, intends to do the same. DISH network in the US is similarly revving up a 5G network based on open RAN. Operators around the world will be watching carefully to see how disaggregated RANs perform in suburban and urban areas

Stefan Pongratz, vice president at research firm Dell'Oro, senses growing open RAN urgency. “I expect the first phase of open RAN to accelerate rapidly in 2020,” he says.

There is some big-supplier resistance to open RAN, most notably from Huawei, but Vodafone is arguably doing more than most – among the heavyweight operators – to force a rethink.

Last October, Vodafone issued vendors a bold RFQ (request for quotes) to supply more than 100,000 sites across Europe with OpenRAN‑compliant kit, covering 2G-5G. (OpenRAN, rather than the more generic ‘open RAN’, refers to specific work carried within the OpenRAN Project Group, which forms part of the Facebook-led TIP (Telecom Infra Project), an engineering initiative that seeks to upend traditional supply chains.)

At the time of the RFQ, Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone Group’s head of network strategy & architecture – and appointed TIP’s new chairman a few months later – said Vodafone was willing to “swap out sites” where necessary. “Our aim is to have modern, up‑to-date, lower cost kit on every site,” he added.

Vodafone has also issued an OpenRAN 5G New Radio software request for information (RFI), which drew responses from various ‘challenger’ suppliers, including Altiostar, Altran, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Phluido and Radisys. There was no response from Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia, but Samsung (which is part of the ‘big five’ RAN suppliers, along with ZTE) threw its hat into the ring.  

This is a significant industry development, and there have been others. In February, the O-RAN Alliance, which develops open and standardised interfaces, formed a partnership with TIP’s OpenRAN Project Group. The idea behind the collaboration is to “ensure alignment” in the shared focus area of developing interoperable 5G RAN solutions. Timotheus Höttges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, which has a close relationship with the O-RAN but not OpenRAN, welcomed the development. Because of this “alignment”, he indicated, “all the big telcos are working on these [open RAN] initiatives going forward”.

Höttges is looking forward to disaggregating the “entire RAN infrastructure” after the first step of opening up 5G RAN networks.

 

Get the back-office ship-shape

To reap the full benefits of open RAN, operations and business support systems (OSS/BSS) should not work like legacy systems. It’s not ideal if each generation of cellular technology is managed separately in silos. This would undermine the open RAN business case.  The siloed approach of adding a new layer for every new technology leads to network complexity. In turn, that means operations & maintenance becomes more complex and capex/opex heads north.

“This sometimes prevents the mobile operators from keeping pace with new technology developments”, warns Eugina Jordan, VP of marketing at Parallel Wireless, a software supplier that’s making a strong push into the open RAN space. The US-based vendor is involved in numerous OpenRAN commercial trials involving big-name operators (including Vodafone).

With the arrival of 5G networks, other demands are placed upon OSS/BSS. For services that require low latency, network inventory needs to be up-to-date and operating in real-time to allocate appropriate network resources and meet the stringent performance requirements needed for the likes of augmented/virtual reality and immersive videos.

Jordan adds that there needs to be “single automation umbrella”, under which the OSS/BSS will have the ability of “seamlessly supporting” networks with mixed virtualization technologies. This virtualization mixture includes virtual network functions (spun up on virtual machines) and cloud-native containerized functions.

Moreover, there is a compelling busines case requirement that the back-office has real-time awareness in an open RAN environment of both the availability of physical network components and virtualised ones. Without this awareness, automated service fulfilment and assurance, based on event-driven workflows, is pretty much a non-starter. The alternative – reliance on human intervention – is slower, expensive, and more prone to error. 

 

Answers are at hand

OSS/BSS specialist Suntech is geared up for an industry shift towards open RAN. SunVizion Network Inventory provides real-time records and visibility of all network assets. It is as far removed from silo thinking as 5G tech is from 2G.

With this holistic capability, SunVizion Network Inventory gives the prized end-to-end view of service orchestration and fulfilment. An additional benefit is that SunVizion tools support in-built workflows. This helps predictive O&M and service verification. There’s also peace of mind that the database is updated automatically. New network rollouts are almost immediately logged by Suntech’s OSS/BSS engines, which are running constantly in the background.

Vodafone’s Tenorio indicated that many sites may well be “swapped out” in the operator’s open RAN push. He’ll no doubt want an OSS/BSS that can keep pace.