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By Adrian O’Connor, CEO at Benetel

It has been another eventful year for the mobile communications industry. Over the course of the last twelve months, we have seen a move from theoretical discussions around disaggregated networks featuring open interface technologies to the first real signs of them actually being manifested. There are now several large operators who’ve announced that they have deployments underway – at the recent TIP Summit in Amsterdam, for instance, Vodafone and Telefónica both gave details of ORAN pilot schemes they are currently working on. We are now seeing genuine market interest, as well as increasing device availability, with more vendors developing the front haul splits necessary to support this.

The VRAN ecosystem is strengthening all the time, and the number of companies getting involved is steadily growing. Evidence of this can be seen with the emergence of the neutral host market segment, where an entirely new community is seeking to own and manage part of the telecom infrastructure within their existing physical assets. Cooperation with major network operators can be seen in certain geographies like the UK with the creation of “JOTS” (Joint Operator Telecom Specification), that  provides a legitimate path for neutral host participation. The vRAN implementation is an excellent fit for these new networks as multi operator ready equipment will be required as well as the ability to deliver tailored services as needed. The key is service quality indoors is just as important as outdoors. As Telefónica executive Enrique Blanco Nadales pointed out during his keynote at the TIP Summit – just because an open-source approach is being employed, it doesn’t mean that subscribers will put up with any drop in the quality of service they get …that simply won’t be acceptable.

Increasing dialogue in relation to 5G VRAN is also taking place, as operators look to future-proof their LTE-based VRAN investments and reuse as much as they can of the engineering resource that’s been allocated here, in order to accelerate their next-generation network deployments. One of the things we have definitely noticed is that a much larger proportion of 5G R&D activity is now focused on utilization of the sub-6GHz band – whereas until now it was mmWave that was mainly being talked about (and seemed to be getting all of the media attention). Though mmWave will support greater capacity levels and deliver much higher data rates, its dramatically reduced range and the unprecedented deployment density required will mean that the ideal use case is in dense urban environments only.

In North America, the potential of 3.5GHz OnGo (CBRS) is significant with commercial launches now a reality. With capability today in an LTE context, the expansion to include 5G under the same approach should be the next step. Moving forward, OnGo is likely to be the preferred course of action for enterprises’ private network deployments.

November saw Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy open a process through which companies can apply for private 5G licenses to cover limited areas for frequencies in the 3.7 to 3.8GHz range. This will provide organisations with the possibility of building a mobile network, disconnected from the Internet, providing a new level of security.

Finally, the private network players are exploring VRAN, for many of the same reasons as the major operators, where they see the benefit of VRAN to provide the ability to upgrade and scale the network for their end markets.