2020 was a Great Year for Open RAN and 2021 Will be Better Because of these 5 Open RAN Trends

It seems that nobody wants the new year to be a repeat of 2020. That’s also true among Open RAN providers – even though 2020 was a year of great growth and adoption of the new framework for mobile networks.

It was also a year where a lot of the building blocks were put in place – many wireless operators conducted proofs of concept, the ecosystem reached critical mass, and new cloud-native 5G technology was launched.

Most importantly, the Rakuten Mobile network, which was the first commercial scale Open RAN network, proved to the world that the technology worked at a large scale and in dense urban environments.

We don’t want a repeat of 2020, because the foundation has been laid for an even better year in 2021.

With all of the accomplishments of 2020, there’s still a lot more to do in 2021. Here are five key trends that the industry can expect in 2021:

Tipping Point for open RAN: In 2021, I believe many operators will go to the next level of engagement with large-scale commercial deployments. For greenfield operators like DISH, this engagement becomes an attractive proposition since they have the opportunity to build this innovation right from the start. However, other service providers also have been spending time in the open RAN community to determine the best way to introduce this new approach into their networks. In fact, these brownfield operators are the pragmatists who want to see increased competition in the consolidated RAN supplier space and are encouraging open RAN as a way to change this dynamic.

Operational and management innovation for open RAN: A new breed of system integrators will contribute to helping mobile operators see that the new RAN systems match the reliability they count on, and that the system interfaces they use are robust. These system integrators will be well versed with RF technologies and they will have expertise in cloud and IT technologies. However they will need to differentiate themselves with the value they bring through expertise with increased automation, deployment and operation of the network, or expertise with cloud-native software.

Increased cloudification of RAN technologies: Most cloudification steps taken by operators have been primarily in their core networks. However, with Rakuten as an example, the industry now believes that virtualization of the RAN is feasible at a commercial scale. Most operators are examining how to upgrade their transport networks to scale up with the explosion of data coming from 5G. With the 3GPP R15 definition of breaking up the RAN protocol stack into a centralized unit (CU) and distributed unit (DU), mobile operators will need to provision different transport requirements for each component. But with this, they will also need to examine how to build the cloud infrastructure for RAN technologies in close conjunction with their transport networks. Use cases like ultra-reliable low-latency communication (UrLLC) and enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) would entail building out far edge and edge cloud locations where the different RAN instances could be hosted.

Availability of a wider open RAN ecosystem: Building a diverse radio ecosystem is one of the core tenets for open RAN. In 2020, the O-RAN Alliance built the foundation for introducing new radio vendors by standardizing the specifications for the fronthaul interface between the radio and the baseband. Companies like Altiostar, Fujitsu, Gigatera, MTI, Facebook, and NEC have been actively working on designing radio solutions that can meet this requirement. We believe that these efforts will come to fruition in 2021 where radio solutions based on O-RAN specifications will be widely available in the marketplace while ensuring that these are delivering against the KPIs and requirements set forth by service providers.

Beyond the radios, we also believe that there will be an explosion of vendors in the open RAN ecosystem. We already see the cloud platform vendors like Red Hat, VMware, Google, and Amazon increasing their mobile network presence. We believe that companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Dell, Supermicro, etc. will evolve to incorporate hardware that can meet the real-time requirements for open RAN cloud-based networks. This hardware evolution will incorporate timing synchronization, network interface cards designed for high bandwidth, and server processors that can pool a large number of cell site sectors in small server form factors.

Feature-rich software solutions for open RAN: From a RAN software perspective, 2020 was focused on ensuring stability and matching network KPIs and launching the first 5G solutions. 2021 will be about evolving to include many more features and capabilities that will allow operators to not only match the services that they currently offer but also truly get the benefits of open RAN that is built on cloud technologies. Services such as DSS, RAN sharing and narrow band-internet of things (NB-IoT) will become prevalent in open RAN networks.

With 2020 in the past, it’s now time to focus on expanding on a firm technology and experience foundation. 2021 will bring with it open RAN operational and deployment advances thanks to cloudification, a bigger ecosystem, and new software features that will allow more network operators to widely deploy open RAN. We think 2021 will be another pivotal year for the evolution of open RAN technologies as the only way to build expanded 4G networks and next-generation 5G networks.

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About The Author
Shabbir Bagasrawala Head of GTM, Altiostar