How telcos can deliver reliable open RAN by 2025

As we approach mid-2024, Open Radio Access Network technology (Open RAN or ORAN) is gaining unmistakable momentum. It’s not just talk, it’s real action. Major telcos such as AT&T, Vodafone, TELUS and Deutsche Telekom have also made significant investments and commitments to Open RAN, with plans to deploy Open RAN technology on 30% of their European sites by 2030. At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Open RAN was a recurring theme. One projection calculates that it will generate $3.2 billion in annual revenue by 2024.

The appeal of Open RAN lies in its flexible architecture, which allows for low-power, stable mobile networks, better performance and faster launch of new innovative customer services. Also, Open RAN paves the way for next-generation wireless technology and spectrum use.

In the last two years, the focus has been on preparing for the transition: this includes technology standardization, testing of individual technologies, standardization and basic interoperability. This year, 2024, is the year of large-scale open RAN deployments, where many network platforms are fully upgraded to open RAN architectures.

The challenge: transitioning to an open RAN

The transition to open RAN involves a major industrialization project where traditional RAN platforms are reengineered, pulling and reassembling them using disaggregated network architectures and best-of-breed open RAN-compatible technologies, supported by AI control for better network management.

It is effectively a complex infrastructure modernization project that uses physical and digital technologies to generate more value from physical infrastructure. As with any infrastructure project – it will require careful management to bring all relevant partners and suppliers together to work towards a common goal.

Administration of this program must address several technical challenges. New open RAN networks will enable new technologies from a wide range of vendors. Overarching program management involves not only overseeing deployment, but also a rigorous assessment of technologies, their suppliers, and how they integrate and function within the network.

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There is no precedent for deploying these networks at scale, and if the overall project and its technical aspects are not effectively managed, the total cost of ownership (TCO) will increase. When operators get it wrong — and end up with networks that quickly degrade and require constant patching — they can become a management school case study on subjects that don’t pay enough attention to over-management and technical detail.

Overcoming open RAN risks to deliver a reliably operating network

Telecom companies that have committed to Open RAN face the daunting task of making it operational and at reliable scale, meeting strict Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

The key dimensions to be managed in this massive industrialization program are:

  • Building a supplier ecosystem

Operators must carefully select a wide range of vendors to suit the specific needs of their network. That means navigating an ecosystem of hardware providers (e.g. radio, signal processing, switches), software (e.g. control, virtualization, analytics), cloud providers/hyperscalers, and AI and automation tools. Each will require verification and validation independently and within the network to ensure that all of their technologies are seamlessly integrated.

This should be supported by establishing a supply chain ecosystem that includes clear technical guidance, standards and blueprints that allow different types of suppliers to 'plug and play’ in the network.

Each vendor needs a clear SLA to define what they will deliver, align with network requirements, and set clear lines of responsibility and process for problem resolution. To ensure these contracts meet the long-term needs of both parties, they must be informed by a deep understanding of the engineering challenges, the pressures on the supplier and the needs of the entire network – not just built around personal relationships. You don’t want to end up with hundreds of great direct supplier relationships, none of which work together.

  • Design and functionality
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The network architecture itself must be designed, configured, and tested to support interoperability between different vendor equipment. Common data models will be required to ensure easy integration with Tier-2/Tier-3 operators who cannot invest heavily in R&D to develop data models.

An understanding of emerging standards and vendor certifications and how to apply them in the real world – even as they continue to evolve – can help mitigate many potential problems.

Scaling an open RAN from a single site to hundreds or thousands will require processes to efficiently manage this. Creating technical templates for RAN site improvements that can be reused and customized to local needs will be an essential part of any program management that hopes to deliver this change at scale. This should be supported by as much standardization as possible across the entire network, especially in the security architecture.

It may take some time to get all the first site updates right. But with good program management, subsequent upgrades should be quick, as technical architectures in customizable maps allow rapid scale upgrades to the network.

  • Monitoring and Automation

Managing the complexity of Open RAN and maintaining high levels of network performance – at least comparable to an optimal single-vendor environment – ​​will require smart use of network monitoring.

Real-time performance data from each vendor should be collected and evaluated by analytics and AI tools, enabling network automation and self-regulating networks to continuously identify issues and optimization opportunities. For example, monitoring systems can perform security checks or help detect and diagnose interoperability issues between components from different vendors, thereby ensuring network operations are objective. This is a critical issue in Open RAN, as mismatches in configurations or software versions between devices from different vendors can lead to service degradation or failures.

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Robust data on network configuration and performance can also support the creation of digital twins of the site system, which can be replicated to similar sites for rapid deployment or to add performance at each new scale before deploying new systems. Deployment.

The importance of balancing technical expertise with program management

Effective program management in deploying a new telecommunications infrastructure such as an open RAN cannot be divorced from a thorough understanding of the underlying engineering and radio technologies.

Program managers need to understand the technical nuances and issues involved in open RAN, ensure that programs meet stringent network performance and security metrics, and that network configurations can be easily scaled and customized across sites. Lack of technical competence in the underlying technologies has resulted in many projects being overridden and costly, leading to significant post-integration rework and adjustments and inconsistencies across platforms. If you don’t understand the program you’re managing, you can’t do good program management.

Transitioning to an open RAN is not only a strategic business move, but a comprehensive overhaul of the telecommunications infrastructure that demands a deep technical and operational understanding, delivering efficient transition with better program management. As the industry moves closer to widespread adoption of Open RAN, the ability of telcos to manage this transition will be critical to their success and sustainability in the new era of telecommunications.

Telco Insights A series of posts on the latest trends and opportunities in the telecom industry – powered by a global community of industry experts and thought leaders.

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