Six critical success factors for telcos preparing Radio Access Networks for 5G
Today’s telecoms consumers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for connectivity: higher speeds, cheaper data, better coverage and faster responses are all expected as part of daily life. The arrival of 5G into the mainstream is the industry’s response to this demand and has been heralded as the new dawn.
When consumers are out of Wi-Fi range, they rely on Radio Access Networks (RANs) for their connectivity. Given that RANs have high performance requirements and are geographically distributed, they are generally acknowledged to be the most expensive part of a telecom network to implement and operate. As a result, because 5G will intensify the demand placed on RANs to provide connectivity, the challenge for any telecom operator is how to meet this demand without a huge increase in expense.
The case for open RAN
Given the pressure on RANs, let’s look at what’s needed to ensure they are cost-efficient, high-performing and resilient. First, an efficient RAN requires containerized network functions, which can make the most efficient use of the hardware used to host them. Secondly it requires a container environment that is designed specifically for telecom workloads, with characteristics such as high throughput and low latency.
These two requirements suggest that telecom operators should be free to select best-of-breed components for their particular network rather than being restricted to a pre-integrated stack. Fortunately, the emergence of open RAN makes this possible. A key benefit of open RAN is that it defines a set of standards so that best-of-breed components from multiple vendors can be integrated to create the most efficient – and seamless – high-performing virtualized RAN.
Open RAN therefore offers game-changing advantages in terms of performance, efficiency and resilience – particularly with the imminent demands of 5G. Yet the reality is that designing, building, implementing and operating open RAN are not trivial tasks.
Challenges of open RAN
There are six critical success factors for implementing efficient and effective open RAN, requiring a blend of specialist expertise, capabilities and experience.
1. Extending IT hardware for telecom
While a core 5G infrastructure is based on IT infrastructure, requires accelerators (such as DPDK, SR-IOV, NUMA and CPU pinning) to step IT infrastructure up to the performance needed for telecom. Open-RAN architects need to be expert in these technologies to design private infrastructure for operators.
2. Cloud capabilities and insight
Hyperscalers such as AWS, Azure and Google are entering the telecom cloud market, with options to put private 5G networks into the public cloud. This means that telecom operators can benefit from a mix of public, private or hybrid clouds. It is an important opportunity to gain vital agility, efficiency and flexibility. But telecom operators need to be expert in how best to blend different cloud vendor offerings to achieve the most efficient and secure solution.
3. Engineering and installation expertise
Expert feet on the ground are needed to install RAN distributed units to deliver open RAN, together with expertise in container technology to deploy the required RAN and management software. Experience in the sector shows that it’s a constant challenge to find an expert team large enough to resource a regional or national rollout. In addition, the installation of radio units requires local engineers qualified to work on antenna sites and experienced in radio-frequency electrical installation and testing.
4. End-to-end security
Strategy, responsibility and solutions for securing the end-to-end open RAN cannot be piecemeal; security is only as strong as the weakest point. Security mechanisms and responses must be considered holistically and require specialist cybersecurity expertise given the evolving threat landscape.
5. Accelerating decarbonization
With pressure on telecom operators to accelerate their decarbonization journeys across their estates, they must demonstrate to customers and shareholders that investments are carbon-neutral wherever possible. Essential step changes can only be achieved when decarbonization and environmental impacts are considered holistically across the network.
6. Seamless integration
When network functions were limited to data centers – and even with the advent of network function virtualization – integration tended to be done by the network equipment manufacturer. What changes with open RAN is the sheer range and scale of skills required to integrate a distributed network. The expense and complexity of telecom operators undertaking this work in-house would be considerable. Only independent integrators can successfully manage the multiple equipment manufacturers and provide the hardware, cloud, networking, physical engineering and program management skill to seamlessly integrate best-of-breed solutions end to end.
Operators at a crossroads
Given these six factors, and with the arrival of Open RAN onto the market in time for 5G, telecom operators are now at a crossroads. They need to choose whether to continue with a single vendor solution and not take advantage of Open RAN’s advantages in performance and flexibility. Or, they need to expand their internal engineering departments to take responsibility for integration and rollout. Or, they can engage with partner ecosystems who can blend the right combination of experience across all six areas.
With new industry and software standards, and as network components become more complex, telecom operators will inevitably make more use of specialist integrators. And as telecom-operator engineers prepare for the convergence of 5G, cloudification and Open RAN, the opportunities and the challenges around deployment and integration should be front of mind.
Open RAN therefore offers game-changing advantages in terms of performance, efficiency and resilience – particularly with the imminent demands of 5G. Yet the reality is that designing, building, implementing and operating Open RAN are not trivial tasks.