O-RAN Will Change the Game for Mobile Network Operators
Kalyan Sundhar, Vice President and General Manager of Keysight’s 5G Edge to Core Group (pictured) discusses the importance of O-RAN with Mobile World Live
1. What is O-RAN and why is it important?
Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) refers to the opening of interfaces between the various parts of the radio access network (RAN). By making their network equipment interoperable, vendors are giving mobile network operators (MNOs) more choices when it comes to RAN infrastructure.
2. Is this a paradigm shift for the mobile telecommunications industry?
Yes, this is a game changer. It allows more flexibility for MNOs in terms of selecting best-in-class sub-components and integrating them through open, well-defined interfaces. Currently, there are only a limited number of vendors in the world who can manufacture 5G RAN the traditional way. MNO supply chains are limited to a few options and each MNO must rely on one vendor for an entire network within a geographic region. This vendor has sole responsibility for network construction, optimization, maintenance, and upgrades, setting the cadence of the operator’s evolution. This is no longer the case with O-RAN.
3. What does O-RAN mean for smaller MNOs?
Once the O-RAN architecture is implemented, O-RAN enables smaller MNOs to enter the race. A major concern today with network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) is that they rarely perform customized solutions for smaller MNOs since any change they make will apply to all their products. Satisfying the diverse demands from many MNO customers around the world is too extensive, driving network vendors to focus on the needs of larger operators. This business model drives up the cost of services, forces out smaller competitors, and decelerates innovation. Overall, the current model is a static, unbalanced, and uncompetitive ecosystem for the entire cellular industry. In contrast, O-RAN opens the door to nimble, specialized RAN vendors, and forces traditional vendors to innovate to compete. Stronger competition will drive down costs and improve network and service quality and performance.
4. What has been happening in terms of rollouts/deployments?
Many trials are ongoing with a heavy focus on the fronthaul interface split. Keysight has been at the forefront of these efforts working on defining the specifications in the O-RAN Alliance and validating the interfaces in real customer environments. All major MNOs are paying close attention to O-RAN developments. More than 20 major operators are contributing members of the O-RAN Alliance.
Service providers are increasingly implementing cloud-based solutions, establishing the groundwork for O-RAN. Vodafone, for example, is rolling out O-RAN in Northern Ireland and has committed to use O-RAN technology for at least 2,600 sites in the UK. In addition, the operator has asked vendors to submit O-RAN proposals for sites across Europe. Separately, DISH Network and Rakuten Mobile have committed to O-RAN architectures, leading the way for greenfield 5G networks.
5. What efforts are being made to accelerate O-RAN design and deployment across the industry?
The standards are being refined, which is very important to the process of creating interoperable components. MNOs worldwide are pushing this initiative and they have received support from both incumbents and new entrants.
The industry has also been implementing simulation and virtualization solutions to bring many functions to the cloud. This will reduce the dependence and complexity of RAN hardware. Software and cloud-based simulation and virtualization will also speed network testing, analysis, verification, and acceptance processes for MNOs and NEMs. These efforts will accelerate O-RAN design and deployment.
6. What is the relationship between O-RAN and 5G?
O-RAN is not exclusive to 5G. It is coming of age at a time when 5G network deployment is in high gear, but MNOs can just as easily implement O-RAN in 4G and, eventually, 6G. The concept of O-RAN is truly revolutionary and not tied to any one generation of cellular technology.
7. What are some of the O-RAN challenges the industry is facing in the context of the network evolution to 5G and what solutions do you foresee to overcome these challenges?
Creating interoperable components that conform to the specifications requires very well-defined standards. This is a challenge in the early days of any new technology. O-RAN is no different. However, there has been a significant push to get conformance and interoperability standards established for O-RAN and it is moving in the right direction. Keysight’s conformance and interoperability test suites provide tools to address this challenge head on.
Ownership is another challenge. Who is responsible when something goes wrong: the service provider or the NEMs of these disaggregated components?
Short-term investment requirements may be another challenge. Service providers need to upgrade their infrastructure from purpose-built hardware to software/cloud solutions. This is an extensive infrastructure change that may involve swapping out existing 4G sites.
Testing can also present a challenge as more components are introduced into the architecture. Operators need to test each component individually, which adds complexity to the deployment. Also, it is necessary to consider scenarios like non-standalone architecture (NSA) and standalone architecture (SA) separately. Handsets and other 5G devices require testing to ensure compatibility and performance.
8. Does O-RAN present any new security challenges? Are there ways O-RAN can enhance security?
With open interfaces, operators’ visibility into their networks increases, potentially enhancing security. This is an area that is getting more attention and will evolve further.
Security is a concern regardless of whether you are using O-RAN or another form of RAN architecture. Since security challenges cannot be eliminated, it is important to consider which solution will provide a better option for operators to resolve security issues. Overall, an open and disaggregated RAN has many positive effects on security. Open interfaces are more transparent than a black box from a traditional RAN and the disaggregation of O-RAN will improve security agility. For example, operators detecting a security vulnerability can test each component and only replace the component that caused the vulnerability instead of dissecting their whole network. With traditional RAN architectures, service providers sometimes opt for keeping the vulnerability to avoid costly network-wide swapping. O-RAN addresses that need.
9. What is Keysight doing to help network vendors and mobile network operators overcome O-RAN challenges? How is Keysight unique in its approach and capabilities?
Keysight provides security suites that verify the vulnerabilities of the different components. Keysight views security as a layer that sits on top of all O-RAN interfaces. We are in a unique position, providing the ability to test physical, virtual, and cloud incarnations of disaggregated components for security vulnerabilities.
Keysight developed the Keysight Open RAN Architect (KORA) exclusively for O-RAN testing. KORA offers integrated solutions that accelerate the development, integration, and deployment of O-RAN-compliant equipment. These solutions validate the entire O-RAN system from the handset to the 5G core to ensure every component is properly tested and the whole RAN system works as expected. The suite is tailored to the supply chain workflow that consists of chipset makers, NEMs, mobile operators and Open Test and Integration Centers (OTIC). This common set of solutions simplify the sharing of results across the workflow from pre-silicon to cloud deployments.
10. What do you anticipate with O-RAN in the far and not-so-distant future?
Soon, many trials will help cement the path forward for several evolving ecosystems. In the long term, based on the trials, the industry will hone in on the key models to use for deployment.
Many operators have O-RAN deployment on their roadmaps. The largest operators in the world are all core contributors to the O-RAN Alliance. Meanwhile, many smaller NEMs are working on their products to participate in 5G network construction. O-RAN will disrupt the traditional RAN infrastructure. Massive deployment will require time and money and change is not expected overnight but it is unfolding.