Why Open RAN Adoption is Accelerating
February 24, 2021
The drive for virtualization and disaggregation is not new. It began with compute virtualization and was adopted successfully in the IT world. Ever since, other technology domains, including telecom networks, have been evolving to replicate that success and harvest the same benefits.
Open RAN is another step in this ‘open networks’ journey to virtualize and disaggregate the radio access network (RAN) infrastructure. Of late, Open RAN is gaining significant market traction with several Tier 1 operators committing to deploy it in their networks. Accordingly, industry analysts are enthusiastically revising their growth projections for this sector. In this article, we discuss 5 key factors why Open RAN is experiencing accelerated adoption.
Open RAN is benefitting from lessons learned from NFV’s transformation cycle and thanks to the overall shift to network virtualization and the rapid evolution of the technology supporting it. Now, Open RAN is advancing to broader adoption, driven by key developments and initiatives.
Here are five key factors that are helping to drive Open RAN adoption, deployment, and advancement and which show how Open RAN is establishing its important place in the 5G market.
1. Virtualization Technology Evolution
Core advances in virtualization technology are helping to propel Open RAN adoption. The silicon industry, following Moore’s Law, continues to double the capacity every 18 months for the past decade. At the same time, the virtualization layer has been optimized for the network layer and has added technologies like the data plane development kit (DPDK), single-root input/output virtualization, and most recently the extended Berkeley Packet Filter (eBPF)/eXpress Data Path (XDP). These solve the packet routing choke points in the virtual network fabric by minimizing the traversals from the kernel to the user space.
A second and more important factor is the availability of accelerators (GPU/NPU) for dedicated workloads in the virtualized environment. This has significantly improved the ability of virtualized infrastructure to perform at par with physical appliances while retaining the benefits of abstraction and cloud scaling enabling the ability to scale at telco network production loads. Open virtualized RAN benefits from all of these advances.
2. Compelling Economics
RAN is the largest source of TCO in wireless networks. Carriers have a strong incentive to deploy Open RAN and optimize costs and enable a portfolio of new services. While it has been argued that cost savings from open infrastructure can be lost in integration complexity, analysts and Rakuten Mobile in Japan have estimated as much as 40% capex and 30% opex savings versus traditional network building and operational costs.
There are also significant efforts being made to test new services Open RAN enables. The NEC Mobility Test Center opened in November 2020 to provide a live sandbox environment for testing private 5G applications. The center focuses on infrastructure coordination use cases where vehicles and roadways share data. It is equipped with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings; edge-computing sites such as private 5G base stations and roadside cameras; AI; and a range of vehicles. Open RAN’s effectiveness in private 5G networks and applications will also be a major factor in its mainstream success.
3. Open RAN standards
The O-RAN Alliance has provided a great forum and catalyst for realizing Open RAN components and proliferating them in the industry by standardizing the split options and the interface specification. This is enabling the vendor ecosystem to coalesce around a common set of standards and build products that can be integrated with less complexity. NTT DOCOMO expanded O-RAN based multi-vendor interoperability on their commercial network in September 2020. NEC also has conducted plugfests with other vendors to prove interoperability and offer an alternative to traditional monolithic RAN stacks.
4. Vendor diversification
Open RAN offers a significant opportunity to expand the vendor ecosystem and the ability of deploying best of breed systems. This has become an urgent need in light of carriers actively looking to support new vendors and interoperability plugfests.
In September 2020, NEC contributed to the success of what is believed to be the world’s first carrier aggregation using 5G frequency bands in a multivendor Open RAN compliant radio access network (RAN). This practical breakthrough showcased how carriers can deploy best of breed systems in architecting their RAN. Additionally, the UK Government and NEC have launched the "NeutrORAN" project, which will showcase the latest innovations in the Open RAN space. This pioneering project will see 5G Open RAN live within the UK in 2021.
5. Support from the telecom ecosystem
In addition to operators, the broader telecom ecosystem is supporting the rapid advancement of Open RAN. Chip vendors are focusing on developing chipsets focused on driving performance and reduced energy usage of Open RAN radios and Centralized Units (CU) and Distributed Units (DU) in edge deployments. Governments are also backing Open RAN because they are eager to create a more diverse, yet trusted technology supply chain. Policy and commercial initiatives are accelerating Open RAN adoption which provides carriers, new vendors, and legacy suppliers the impetus needed to embrace the framework. Accelerated adoption will in turn help to create a broader supply chain, feature parity and functional capabilities.
Operators’ adoption of Open RAN is accelerating. There are multiple use cases where Open RAN is being deployed both is dense urban and rural environments. Open RAN trials around the world continue to demonstrate its ability to overcome scale and performance challenges by exploiting recent advances in silicon processors and accelerators. Open RAN now has the momentum to cross the chasm as several Tier 1 operators in Europe and North America increasingly believe in its potential and beginning to deploy in their networks.
VP of Global 5G Business Dev
NEC Corporation of America