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Cloud radio access networks (RANs), virtual RANs (vRANs), and open RANs are seen as ways for telecommunication operators to incorporate flexibility in how they design, build, and operate their access networks. 

This approach has many benefits, including vendor diversity and simplicity of operations, but it’s also seen as compelling technology for service providers to deliver the capacity and performance they need to deliver new 5G services and applications for public and private networks. Both approaches also can help drive cost reduction. To fully achieve this, automation along with zero touch provisioning and operations is needed due to the vast quantity and dispersed nature of cell sites.

This article highlights how service providers from different parts of the world are embracing cloud RAN, vRAN and open RAN within their access networks. The insights illustrate how service providers—using cloud-native technologies to underpin their access network deployments—establish a consistent and efficient platform to increase their agility and ensure necessary performance to meet ever-growing demands.

Understanding the different terms

The RAN space has its own associated vocabulary, with some terms used interchangeably, and others having more specialized meaning. Cloud RAN and vRAN is essentially the decoupling of mobile network base station software from its underlying hardware. Decoupling allows the software to be virtualized, either towards the use of network function virtualization (NFV) and virtual machines (VMs) or the use of microservices and containers. At present, the momentum is shifting towards the use of microservices on container-based technology. 

Open RAN and its variations are often used to describe different things:

  • Open RAN can mean the overall industry effort that encompasses open RAN architectures and interfaces.

  • The term O-RAN or ORAN refers to the Open RAN Alliance, specifically to the standards and interface profiles being developed by that industry body. 

  • The term OpenRAN refers to a project within an industry initiative known as the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), whose aim is to test and verify open RAN concepts and implementations.

Global subtleties and commonalities

In a a previous article about adoption of evolved vRAN, we highlighted that an increasing number of service providers were investing in evolving their RAN to cloud RAN, vRAN and/or open RAN. 

Recent Omdia research commissioned by Red Hat displayed evidence of increased interest and actual momentum from the Asia Pacific (APAC), Latin American and North American markets. This is further reflected in rising membership and participation in relevant industry initiatives, confirmed lab trials and proofs of concept, and commercial deployments.  

The research identifies a growing number of scenarios worldwide for cloud RAN, vRAN and open RAN, covering outdoor and indoor deployments for rural and urban environments in both private and public networks. As an early adopter of the latest technologies, Japan is noted as the open vRAN global leader. This APAC country’s infrastructure is also an important factor for widespread deployment, primarily due to the speed and abundance of fiber connectivity—critical to meet the high bandwidth and low latency requirements of access networks.

Connecting the under-served consumer is one of the key drivers of cloud RAN, vRAN and/or open RAN within Latin America. Migrating to the cloud and using cloud-native container-based technologies are cited as key factors that provide the operational agility, scalability and automation needed for access network deployments. 

Similarly, the North American market consists of many people that have limited or no access to high-speed broadband, especially in rural areas. Cloud RAN, vRAN and/or open RAN are compelling technologies and can enable different economic models that allow service providers to deliver connectivity solutions in areas that would typically be unfeasible from a cost perspective.

Government and external influences

Political factors can accelerate adoption and deployment of cloud RAN, vRAN and open RAN. Political influence is probably the strongest in the North American market. The U.S. government has a number of initiatives intended to advance the adoption of open and interoperable RAN solutions. 

The Open RAN Policy Coalition consists of a number of global technology companies interested in creating innovation and expanding the supply chain for advanced wireless technologies, including 5G. Also in focus within the U.S. Senate is the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA)—which sets aside $1.5 billion to advance 5G and 6G technologies targeting U.S.-based open vRAN vendors.

Lower upfront investments

5G is not just an evolution from 4G.  Implementing 5G demands network transformation, including distributed architectures and open infrastructure. In turn, for the delivery and management of services within the RAN, these may be dependent on open, cloud-native, software-defined and disaggregated configurations.

Achieving the right time-to-value is vitally important, and for some service providers an approach that has low upfront costs will ensure the necessary flexibility, quality and sustainability needed to deliver new 5G services and gain additional revenue.

Red Hat can offer a point of view on how to undertake this transformation, with practical insights to help service providers overcome investment challenges often faced when embarking on this endeavor.  Our extensive investment in proven reference architectures results in lower costs for 5G. Coupled with a subscription, selected Red Hat consulting services and an enhanced service level agreement (SLA) can help maximize service provider success. 

Closing remarks and where Red Hat can help

New approaches to building the RAN will transform how service providers design, build, and operate their access networks. However, embarking on this transformation should be seen as a major undertaking due to:

  • The need to verify new business and economic models that take into account the specificities of the markets in which they operate.

  • The need to introduce a completely new and re-designed architecture that takes full advantage of standards-based and industry initiatives.

  • The desire to achieve hands-off deployment of the RAN using automation and zero touch provisioning and operations to accelerate service delivery and mitigate risk through consistent and compliant configuration management.

  • The complexity of introducing new vendors as service providers will have the ability to choose what they perceive to be best-in-class functions.

With the shift toward microservices on container-based technology in the RAN space, Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform can provide a flexible and scalable cloud-native platform to support service providers’ access network strategies. OpenShift’s ability to support distributed RAN architectures will allow service providers to capitalize on trends afforded by these new technologies.

To learn more, download the Omdia APAC, Latin America and North America whitepapers,  and explore further information within the Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform.

About the author

Rob McManus is a Principal Product Marketing Manager at Red Hat. McManus is an adept member of complex matrix-style teams tasked to define and position telecommunication service provider and partner solutions with a focus on network transformation that includes 5G, vRAN and the evolution to cloud-native network functions (CNFs).

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