oRAN: Opening the door to smarter cities

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The telecoms industry is going through a time of great innovation and change. With buzzwords abound and promises of a 5G-enabled ‘smart’ future, operators are under increasing pressure to monetise and be first-to-market with new services. However, with major players traditionally enjoying a monopoly of the RAN side of the market, the business model is becoming more difficult to manage, exacerbated by the fact subscribers now demand more cellular data at even lower rates. Ingo Flomer, Vice President, Business Development and Technology, Cobham Wireless, explains how opening the RAN and using multi-operator, multi-frequency solutions is key to delivering the consistent coverage that 5G, the IoT and smart cities require.

It’s no secret that as revenues from traditional voice and SMS services decline, mobile operators have been looking for new revenue streams and opportunities to maximise the value of their data offering. The growth in the IoT, particularly as it moves towards more industrial use cases, as well as the development of smart cities, have the potent to provide those revenue streams.

However, supporting the massive capacity requirements of smart cities and the IIoT introduces new challenges for the telecoms industry as well as the vertical sectors hoping to stake a claim in this market. In the past, operators were tasked with delivering coverage for smartphones, so prioritised coverage in public areas. The emergence and evolution of the IoT and smart cities, however, requires operators to also deliver coverage in non-public areas, including difficult-to-access in-building locations. Finding a cost-effective means of reaching IoT devices and ensuring reliable, consistent coverage (especially for mission-critical applications) is becoming increasingly complex.

The open goal

Open radio access networks, or oRAN, is an emerging form of virtualised network architecture built on general-purpose, commercial off-the-shelf hardware. The architecture allows for a combination of different hardware and software and can be simply integrated and upgraded via software. The result is cheaper equipment that can be scaled, upgraded or changed much more easily.

Using open interfaces in radio networks will greatly benefit operators, allowing them to pick and choose their preferred hardware and software, creating and evolving networks which are specifically suited to the needs of their business and their end-users. This will herald a welcome move away from vendor lock-in, will drive competition and innovation in the NEM market, and help ensure that connecting the IoT and smart cities is democratised, affordable, and sustainable for the long-term.

This open-minded oRAN approach seems sensible, but there’s a reason that this common sense isn’t already common place across the telecoms sector.

Understandably, there has been resistance to such dramatic change in the industry. Major base station and equipment manufacturers like Huawei and Nokia have traditionally enjoyed a monopoly of the RAN side of the market and, wanting to protect their privileged positions, weren’t willing to support open interfaces.

However, the race to deploy 5G, to develop smart city infrastructures and to monetise new services and use cases, is eroding the resistance of the major players to the oRAN model. Keen to be first-to-market and to deploy 5G as quickly as possible has prompted a shift in attitudes – elevating need for customisable, affordable, flexible, best-in-breed and open networks.

As a result, membership of the O-RAN Alliance (the result of a merger of the C-RAN Alliance and the xRAN Forum in February 2018) has been steadily climbing. The body now includes major names such as AT&T, Ericsson, Samsung, Qualcomm, Orange – and even the initially reluctant Nokia.

A smart solution

Realising the consistent 5G coverage to underpin smart cities is complicated, but achievable.

Cell densification is needed to ensure coverage reaches the vital, but difficult-to-reach environments that have previously been ignored. This means implementing small, low-power, high-density, wide-area radio approaches to delivering in-building coverage. Crucially, this must be cost-efficient for operators whose business model is being tested by demanding customers, but equally for venue owners and governing bodies of towns and cities who will be conscious of their investments in smart projects.

A scalable connectivity solution is therefore required, which can support a vast range of high-throughput data services for mobile users, emergency service communications, and the massive volume of connected sensors, infrastructure and ‘things’ in both indoor and outdoor environments.

A multi-operator, multi-frequency solution is key, with a shared approach such as vRAN, which involves centralised baseband processing and virtualisation. This model means that the baseband processing to connect multiple sites in a city is focussed and managed in one central location (‘the cloud’), enabling capacity shifting and careful network management.

If operators take an open approach to vRAN, they can more efficiently create flexible networks specifically designed for increased throughput, greater bandwidth and the ability support multiple frequencies and operators. Finally, they will offer the ability to integrate real-time analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which will help further the development of self-optimising network infrastructure.

As with all new technologies and approaches, change is gradual. Despite all the industry excitement around 5G-powered smart cities, these projects will only come to fruition if they are cost-effectively developed. To ensure operators can progress towards the goal of a smart future, the industry needs to be more open-minded to open RAN.

Ingo Flomer, product management strategy, Cobham Wireless