Why ORAN is critical to usher in the next era of networking (Reader Forum)

Mobile networks across the globe have made unprecedented strides in speed, throughput, manageability and cost reductions in the past few years, all of which proved their worth over the pandemic amid the staggering spike in demand caused by the work-from-home movement among other factors.

Unlike much of the rest of the digital infrastructure stack, some areas within mobile networks have not embraced the level of openness needed to create maximum value for providers, developers and consumers.

One critical segment lagging in this regard is the radio access network (RAN), which is still dominated by traditionally closed platforms. Fortunately, this is about to change with the advent of Open RAN (ORAN). Although still largely in the trial stage, ORAN has already shown to improve radio function optimization and speed up the delivery of services to end users. Not only will this enhance the user experiences (UX) and boost revenue streams, but it will also greatly improve energy efficiency across the RAN, support a more sustainable network, lower infrastructure costs and spur innovation toward new products and services.

Open and agile

As demand for mobile services grows in the 5G era and beyond, so too will the need to build flexibility into the RAN. Under today’s proprietary infrastructure, service providers are hampered by the development cycle of their vendors, which slows down innovation and time to market… It’s no wonder, then, that the RAN has the highest CAPEX impact on the network.

By opening up this layer, ORAN shifts this market from a vendor-driven dynamic to a provider/consumer-driven one. Not only has it been shown to dramatically lower costs, but ORAN also allows providers to craft best-of-breed solutions that most accurately support the kinds of services users demand. This flexibility will allow future services and applications, some of which have not yet been conceived, to be deployed more quickly and with far greater reliability.

For the telco industry, an open, interoperable RAN supports high resource democratization and disaggregation, both of which are crucial in the drive to lower operational costs and develop larger and more diverse revenue streams. Instead of complex, integrated solutions at the radio and baseband unit, for example, ORAN separates functions like RU, DU and CU, allowing them to be virtualized or containerized and then distributed across the RAN architecture on the network – whether it is at the edge or the centralized data center. As long as the interfaces of all these components are open and interoperable, providers can easily deploy the latest services and even tailor them to the unique needs of individual users.

To be sure, working in an open environment is not without its challenges. Greater diversity of resources leads to more significant management burdens. This is already driving the necessity for more sophisticated software platforms elsewhere on the network, many of which are employing increasingly intelligent algorithms to handle both the volume and complexity of modern network management. With this capability on the RAN, providers will gain far greater leverage over network resources, and at a finer level of granularity, to enable high-speed, and perhaps autonomous, network slicing, orchestration and provisioning.

Working smarter

Even more revolutionary, new generations of intelligent controllers allow xApps and rApps to manage network functions in real time. And since they can now be plugged directly into the radio stack itself, they can provide a wide range of services uniquely suited to the RAN, delivering greater performance levels to users while lowering operating costs for providers. And because this is an open environment, these apps can be developed in-house, within an operator-defined program or even onboarded from an open developer community through the SDKs.

As we’ve seen with technology environments time and time again, the more open it is, the more innovation it fosters. Using the power of an open ecosystem and what it brings to collaboration and innovation, virtually anyone can release anything to either succeed or fail on its merits. By nature, this allows strong solutions to rise to the top while weak ones — even those developed or supported by the leading industry players — fade away.

With ORAN bringing this level of functionality to the radio access network, there is no telling what new groundbreaking services will emerge in the future — only that they will generate intense demand and significant revenues from an increasingly mobile digital universe.

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