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What opportunities and challenges will operators face when it comes to deploying virtualized radio access networks (vRANs) in their 4G infrastructures and their planned 5G implementations? How will container and cloud-native technologies impact vRAN plans? 

Heavy Reading explored these issues in a recent survey sponsored by Red Hat. The topic and survey results were discussed in a webinar, available on-demand here

The survey finds an accelerating rate at which telecommunications service providers (telcos) will move to 5G, with its lower-latency service, higher bandwidth, and massive Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities. Respondents expect 5G penetration to significantly increase in their respective carrier networks and the solutions to be cloud-native. Not much of the 5G vRAN infrastructure is containerized today, but nearly 75% of respondents believe that at least half of their 5G vRAN infrastructure will be containerized in two years. The data also indicates that 4G implementations will peak in two years, but at a somewhat reduced level because operators will start transitioning from 4G to 5G, even as they replace older 3G with 4G.

Currently, there are few 5G implementations, and those that exist primarily serve new use cases. As illustrated in the survey, some telcos have taken steps in the 5G direction simply to avoid being the last provider to offer that capability. Today, 5G new radio units are being deployed on radio towers, but the network core remains firmly with 4G LTE. Telcos have found it possible to obtain very low-latency capabilities on 4G networks with virtualization and by using the same split RAN architecture as in 5G. So, they don’t have to wait for 5G issues – such as those around spectrum, costs, security, or privacy and lack there of – to be resolved. 

Also looking to the future, close to 40% of respondents intend to implement vRAN within one to two years, up from the one-fifth of those who already have done so. Slightly less than 10% are moving faster towards vRAN, with plans to put the technology into action in under a year. Spikes in deployments make sense. According to webinar presenters, just a few years ago, telcos’ analyses indicated that implementing the technology would not be cost-effective. Now, they have gained a much better understanding of infrastructure performance in virtualized environments and are better prepared to tune systems to deploy vRAN cost-effectively. 

vRAN on the rise

Fifty-nine percent of respondents have deployed vRANs, with 28% having done so on 4G LTE networks alone versus 17% on 5G. Close to 48% of vRAN deployments are or will be on both existing and new RAN infrastructure, while many operators–nearly 44%–will use vRAN mainly on new deployments but with some existing RAN infrastructure.   

More than 75% of respondents plan to have a quarter or more of their 5G RAN virtualized in just two years. In five years, 62% expect to have deployed vRAN to more than half of their 5G network. Cloud-native technologies – Kubernetes-managed containerized microservices – are core functions of 5G and will be key to increasing the speed, operational efficiency and utilization of service provider networks. The use of container technology is tracking nearly in parallel with 5G implementations. In two years, the majority of respondents will have 25% to 49% of their 5G core using containers, and within five years implementation, the majority will have 50% to 74% of their 5G core functions running in containers. 

Whatever the scenarios, barriers to vRAN deployments do exist. The three top concerns for respondents are lack of product maturity (53%), uncertain ROI (45%), and a skills gap (42%). But hopes are high for vRAN CapEx and OpEx savings. Service providers, on average, expect to save between 10% and 24% on each. That seems realistic and achievable. 

In order to meet the customer demands and deployment timelines for mass scale as predicted by the survey, Red Hat is actively working in various upstream communities to prepare the software infrastructure and to deliver new features so telcos can deploy a cloud native blueprint for 5G and vRAN.

For further insight, click here to read the survey.

About the author

Azhar Sayeed is responsible for developing and driving End-to-End solution architecture for Red Hat's Telcos and Communication Service Providers (CSPs) customers. He contributes to implementation architectures and develops solutions for OpenStack deployment for scale and hyperconvergence.

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