Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Xanthos Angelides, EXFO Product Line Manager, explores what it will take for OpenRAN to become a mainstream technology.
Today’s 5G networks are dependent on virtualized, software-defined radio access networks (RAN) that are open and intelligent to ensure viable, scalable network services delivering high quality of experience for end-user customers. That’s a tall order for multi-generational 3G to 5G networks which now have to support a tsunami of data traffic –all needing end-to-end management.
To the rescue is OpenRAN (O-RAN), with a flexible, scalable architecture that enables deployment of new infrastructure using virtualized and decentralized components. O-RAN has been in play for several years, but its full potential has yet to be realized. The question for many operators is when will O-RAN become fully mature – and how do we get there?
A key driver for the adoption of O-RAN is cost savings resulting from sharing of network infrastructure, which has proven especially attractive in less competitive rural markets. O-RAN and vRAN adoption has now moved beyond greenfield and developing country deployments. In fact, ABI Research reports that the O-RAN/vRAN market is expected to outpace traditional RAN in both the public cellular and enterprise/industrial cellular segments over the next decade.
O-RAN disaggregation is appealing because it enables active sharing strategies that can reduce the cost of deployments by up to 40 percent compared to traditional networks, with even further potential savings from full network sharing, including the core.
However, operators can expect short-term operations costs to increase as they invest in the right tools, solutions, and expertise to integrate and manage O-RAN effectively.
Operators cannot risk poor customer experience during the critical roll-out phase, so validating new site performance to ensure quality of experience (QoE) is essential. And maintaining high QoE on O-RAN networks can be challenging.
The new paradigm
O-RAN literally opens up an ecosystem of vendors, allowing disparate vendors to manage various technical components of the RAN. Seamless interoperability between vendors requires integration of network components plus fast troubleshooting and problem resolution.
Operators need to test before service turn-up to ensure everything is working properly and, if not, to determine whether faults are caused by one or more vendors, or by the interface between them.
Successfully navigating ongoing QoE will rely on two priorities: establishing universal standards to accelerate consistency among 5G equipment and component manufacturers; and adopting improved solutions for network visibility and assurance.
Vendor solution compatibility is being addressed by standards bodies — including 3GPP, Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), and the O-RAN Alliance — which are setting universal standards to manage interoperability. The first O-RAN specifications and standards are expected this year. As a member of the O-RAN Alliance, EXFO is actively participating to align solutions with the needs of operators.
The second priority – improved solutions for O-RAN end-to-end network visibility – remains a challenge for many operators. Operators need a standardized method of assessing interoperability and monitoring performance — in real time.
An EXFO survey of operators in 2020 revealed that 5G network visibility is less than half of what it was for 4G. The survey also showed that 59 percent of RAN specialists lack subscriber and handset analytics. That means a concerning lack of visibility to end-user quality of experience.
With the complexity of 5G and the proliferation of network equipment, it’s important to understand how RAN performance issues impact subscribers and their devices.
The value of accurate, precise geodata
For O-RAN to reach full maturity, operators must take a more holistic approach to network visibility and assurance by using a standard method to collect, exchange, and analyze data according to defined, consistent processes across network operations. Network intelligence with complete and accurate visibility from the radio to the core is what’s needed to ensure QoE.
Maintaining peak performance relies on fast, precise insight into radio coverage, subscriber and device connectivity, and location, with visibility that scales from a cell site to nationwide in seconds.
Fewer than 35 percent of operators can fully perform multi-dimensional, user-defined analytics with maps, the 2020 EXFO survey showed. Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for operators to adopt the latest technologies that can deliver multi-dimensional analytics to locate the source of complex, interrelated RF, network, and device issues.
New Artificial Intelligence-based big data solutions are now enabling fast visibility and analysis to accelerate network optimization and fault resolution. That includes massive, dynamic maps and multi-dimensional analytics that update in seconds – with in-depth multi-layer troubleshooting from the core to the cell site and connected devices.
Some of the benefits which can be derived from implementing the latest network assurance tools include optimizing 5G RAN, enhancing VoLTE services, and minimizing drive testing of which 80 percent is unnecessary if using remote monitoring.
Independent test & measurement and service assurance providers such as EXFO are vendor-agnostic. They can simplify and reduce the complexity of multi-vendor networks that are comprised of a mix of traditional and O-RAN components.
Reaching O-RAN maturity
The next generation of networks is being deployed now and O-RAN has the potential to become a key 5G building block, especially in rural markets. Given that the ecosystem of vendors and systems will increase, operators will need a standard way to collect, exchange, and analyze data and to implement defined, standardized processes across their network operations. Only then will O-RAN reach maturity and achieve its full potential.
Xanthos N. Angelides currently holds the position of Product Line Manager at EXFO for the Nova RAN product line. Having joined EXFO in June 2019, Xanthos is focused on redefining the Nova RAN roadmap and overall market positioning with an aim to emphasize the value that geolocation and RAN insights bring to network operators deploying and managing next-generation networks. Xanthos has been working in the RAN space for the past 20 years holding various roles in network planning and optimization consulting, solutions management and sales.