“With Open RAN we’ll be able to select the best subsystems and firmly stand out.”
At the beginning of 2021, five major European carriers committed to accelerating the availability of Open RAN solutions. The initiative aims to promote this major evolution of 5G technologies, for the European ecosystem in particular.
Open RAN promises more open, flexible, innovative and efficient radio access networks. These features will be expressed as much on the carrier side, in terms of deployment and operation, as for end customers who will benefit particularly from improved service quality.
Stimulate the ecosystem, accelerate developments
The agreement formalised on 20 January 2021 and signed by Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone is a new milestone in the development of the European ecosystem. Carriers have a leading role in the Open RAN dynamic, and they are all invited to join the initiative — a step taken by Italian firm TIM in early February. But why do so, and how? “The primary objective is to accelerate the availability of Open RAN solutions for rapid deployment in Europe”, summarises Olivier Simon, Radio Innovation Director at Orange. “This brings with it the underlying challenge of stimulating the development of the European ecosystem for these solutions. This means clarifying the key demands vis-à-vis the industrial world, making our needs as carriers clear. Under this initiative, member carriers will be able to get to work and collaborate in order to identify common priorities and requirements linked to different technical use cases, so that suppliers can focus their efforts on the most important matters. Indeed, this is the objective of the Technical Priority Document that is currently being drawn up, which will be shared with the industry in April 2021. It is also about structuring support and incentive mechanisms, in partnership with the European Commission and governments, aimed at innovative companies in Open RAN technologies.”
Ad hoc and open resources for manufacturers
Developing the Open RAN ecosystem will also require the provision of new integration resources. Unlike traditional networks, where a handful of suppliers develop single-block solutions in isolation, Open RAN logic relies on open test labs. The many subsystem providers will be able to come together to experiment with their solutions, integrate them and ensure that the end-to-end system created is interoperable and performs well. There are already laboratories like this in Berlin, Turin and Madrid, and Orange will soon unveil one on its campus in Châtillon, near Paris. For carriers, the Open RAN roadmap is clear — deployment of the first indoor systems for rural and private networks in 2021 and 2022, and the first systems for urban networks in 2023. From 2025, all Orange radio equipment that will be deployed for our mobile networks will be compatible with Open RAN.
More flexible use of networks
So what will be the real gains from the adaptation of Open RAN architecture in mobile networks? From a carrier point of view, it is seen as a vehicle for competitiveness and a means to stand out. In the Open RAN model, thinking happens in subsystems, with an “agnostic supplier” view rather than on the basis of a single-tenant solution. Olivier Simon explains that “This means we will be able to select the best subsystems and put them together, instead of opting for a single system that is only somewhat efficient as a whole. As a result, Open RAN offers carriers the ability to differentiate themselves from others. It is also a way to optimise costs, expanding the way networks are operated and shared. Today, the way in which we share our mobile sites is relatively rigid. In future, the possibilities will be vast, and it will be conceivable, for example, to share all the hardware (radio modules and infrastructure) without having to pool the software side.”
Better quality for end customers
The expected impact on end users is an improvement in mobile experience and services. Open RAN comes with the major benefit of implementing a next-generation module enhanced by artificial intelligence, the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC). Among other applications, this controller will be able to learn and analyse user flows and behaviours before adjusting its capabilities accordingly. Let’s use a journey as an example. Where a traditional base station can only guess the approximate location of mobile phones without knowing exactly where they are, the RIC will have learnt the movements to anticipate the position of mobile phones and will deftly direct the radio signal towards them. Ultimately, the result will be improved quality of service.
Most mobile users do not know it yet, but Open RAN is for them too!