By John Doyle, CTO, Benetel
According to the GSMA’s report ‘The Mobile Economy 2020’, there will be more than 600 million new mobile subscribers (5.8 billion in total) and at least 1.2 million additional mobile Internet users (equating to a total of 5 billion) worldwide by 2025. On top of all this, huge increases in industrial, utility, healthcare, and municipal data communication are expected – IoT, for example, is projected to constitute at least 25 billion data connections by that time (a fairly big percentage of which will be cellular).
Though exponential increases in networking traffic lay ahead, at the moment there is little sign that this will be reflected in the revenue generated. Facing a marked ramp-up in network equipment costs and greater system complexity, mobile operators are looking to find more streamlined and affordable alternatives – with a great deal of attention being focused on the radio access network (RAN). As the RAN represents a large proportion of the financial burden when it comes to mobile networks, in terms of both CAPEX and OPEX, any possibility of curbing the costs involved is certain to be welcomed by operators.
The route via which the mobile industry has developed over the decades has led to a constriction of the number of equipment suppliers. As with any market sector, this is not a particularly healthy thing, as it means there is simply not enough choice. Furthermore, many would argue that it has (to some degree at least) stifled innovation. What operators are now looking to do is move away from being tied into having to implement networking solutions that are sourced in their entirety from one single equipment supplier. Instead, they want to be able to specify the most suitable hardware and software elements from several different suppliers – so that they can construct network infrastructure that is fully optimized for their exact needs. To do this, of course, requires interoperability.
The advent of open interfaces, like OpenRAN, will dramatically change how future RAN infrastructure is orchestrated – bringing about its large-scale disaggregation and, in doing so, encouraging a renewed culture of technological advancement. It will mean that room is made, alongside the well-known tier-one equipment manufacturers, for smaller vendors that have exciting new products to offer to the market – ones that will be instrumental in providing greater levels of differentiation.
An expansive multi-vendor ecosystem is already starting to build up around these open interfaces and, thanks to this, operators will be able to follow what is essentially a pick-and-mix strategy. They will no longer be tied into engaging long-term with just a single equipment supplier but will be able to shop around for the best solution for each particular aspect.
Through the adaptability enabled by these open interfaces, plus the array of solutions that could prospectively be chosen from, mobile operators and service providers will be much better prepared to react to their customers’ ever-changing demands. They will also be well-positioned to address any new potential sources of revenue, as and when they begin to surface. What is more, as we move into the 5G era, the greater economic viability of open
interfaces will help when it comes to making network coverage more evenly spread across the subscriber base – so 5G services won’t just be available in high-density urban locations, but will also be applicable in sparsely populated rural environments too.
Mobile operators who decide to embrace an open interface approach early on are certain to experience numerous benefits – giving them a way of gaining a competitive edge over their rivals through the differentiation supported and lowering cost barriers, as well as allowing them to be quicker to address windows of opportunity (thanks to markedly shorter development cycles). Here in Europe, we’ve already seen O2, Telefonica, and Vodafone give their backing to the progression of OpenRAN technology.
Nevertheless, we are not there yet! Those looking to incorporate open interfaces into their networks in the near future still have to contemplate all the potential ramifications of such a move. They must safeguard against any significant impact on their roadmap for transitioning from 4G to 5G technology. Also, they need to be assured that interoperability between different vendors’ solutions can actually be relied upon.
Before making a firm commitment, operators must have real confidence that there will be a continuity in supply. For example, what would happen if a vendor that was integral to a network installation turned out to be unable to cope with the production requirements placed upon it, or even worse, what if it suddenly stop trading completely?
Though the new open interface ecosystem indicates a way to revitalize the global mobile industry and make it much more responsive, there are also major risks to be aware of too. These will need to be mitigated if operators are to be fully convinced that RAN disaggregation is the most sensible course of action – proof points are going to be required.
A survey of operators was recently undertaken by Mavenir which asked them about their views on OpenRAN. Though there were many positive and encouraging points, it uncovered also several concerns that must be tackled. These were whether the performance delivered could match what conventional networks offer, then there were question marks about interoperability, followed by ones relating to the maturity of the technology and the ability for it to coexist/integrate will legacy infrastructure.
It is for exactly these reasons that we at Benetel (as well as many of our technology partners) strongly advocate interoperability testing and comprehensive validations of the solutions from different vendors within the ecosystem so that customers have the assurances they need. Benetel actively participates in industry test events, as well as, proactively seeks interoperability with the ecosystem.