By Adrian O’Connor, CEO at Benetel
The traditional wireless eco-system is not optimised for the delivery of the full 5G vision. The current mobile operator proposition is heavily consumer-focused, and the supply chain is concentrated around a small number of vertically integrated, global vendors whose business model is geared to the delivery of large-scale infrastructure. Consumer revenues are however flattening, if not shrinking, and most future revenue growth from 5G services is forecast to come from the Internet of Things (IoT) and enterprise digitisation across multiple industry verticals, with applications such as factory automation, tele-medicine, connected vehicles, and virtual and augmented reality. With each of these verticals having their own specific characteristics and requirements, the current supply chain simply cannot flex enough to create the innovative new services that will drive 5G growth.
At the same time, the developing global geo-political situation highlights the risks associated with the current concentration of vendors. Trade restrictions are forcing sub-optimal decisions to be made and the ongoing threat of retaliation, from China, for example, risks cutting off supplies of vital equipment and components, potentially impacting wireless services.
Recognising these threats, many governments are looking to stimulate a radical re-structuring of the wireless supply chain, from a vertical model to a horizontal one, where barriers to entry are lowered to a new generation of agile and innovative new players. With striking parallels to the way in which Microsoft’s PC-DOS operating system transformed the computer business, the Open RAN is set to significantly disrupt the wireless industry.
As a first step, in this restructuring, is the introduction of virtual RAN, (vRAN), where certain RAN functions, such as the Baseband Unit, (BBU) and some of the upper layers of the Remote Radio Unit, (RRU), can be centralised and resources pooled for better efficiency. This virtualisation enables operators to reduce site rental costs as well as power consumption and has the further advantage of supporting the modularisation of network functions which can then be run on Commercial Off-the-Shelf, (COTS), servers.
The RAN virtualisation in itself is not however sufficient to drive the level of industry disruption required by 5G since existing vendor-specific vRAN solutions are still proprietary. A true open RAN requires the definition of standards for key interfaces within the RAN environment, figure 1, opening the vertically integrated market up to a range of new vendors who can develop innovative new products.
Figure 1: Moving from Traditional RAN to the OpenRAN
Two organisations are instrumental to the opening of the RAN; the O-RAN Alliance is driving the definition of RAN interfaces required to allow the seamless operation of multi-vendor equipment, whilst the Telecom Infra Project, (TIP), is focusing on the development, test, and deployment of open, disaggregated and standards-based solutions across all areas of the telecoms network, including the RAN. The ultimate vision for the Open RAN is to move the current, vertically oriented supply chain to a horizontal one where operators can mix and match best-of-breed components and use commoditized, off-the-shelf servers that are powered by GPP platforms as well as broadly available semiconductor components.
Such a vibrant and innovative ecosystem needs to be underpinned by a strong research environment, where trials and experimentation can be conducted on 5G networks. The OpenAirInterface Software Alliance, (OSA), whose membership includes major industry players such as Facebook, Orange, and Qualcomm, has recognised the importance of this area of the 5G ecosystem and the role that open-source plays in giving low-cost access to 5G networks. OSA is working on an open-source software stack for the complete 3GPP Release 15 which will run on general-purpose hardware and cloud servers. The stack will be available on a royalty-free basis to research and development organisations and also to vendors, under the OAI Public License V1.1, as a starting point for the development of commercial solutions.
To complement OSA’s stack, Benetel have released our 5G NR Non-Standalone (NSA) Evaluation System, figure 2, an indoor evaluation platform targeted specifically for laboratory, research, and test integration purposes. The system is a full vRAN implementation, with functional split 7.2x that follows the ORAN fronthaul specification. Benetel also provides a suite of Software Test Applications with the platform to facilitate functional and performance testing and have engaged directly with OSA making sure the stack functions with the Benetel ORAN based RU.
Figure 2: The Benetel 5G NR Non-Standalone (NSA) Evaluation System
With almost 20 years-experience in the telecoms industry, Benetel has been heavily involved in small cell development through each mobile network generation and has a deep expertise in RAN technology. Benetel’s membership of O-RAN, OSA, and TIP, enables us to not only understand the trends in the industry but also to influence them. The 5G NR NSA Evaluation system is aligned with Benetel’s strategy of enabling innovation in the RAN and demonstrates our advocacy of a strong 5G research and development community.