In the era of 5G and digitalization, telecom operators are seeking to modernize their networks and infrastructure to be able to cope with all the industry developments, notably increased demand for data. In order to upgrade their network infrastructure, operators are seeking OpenRAN technologies as a means to execute such an upgrade.

Unlike traditional RAN, OpenRAN decouples hardware and software which gives operators more flexibility as they deploy and upgrade their network architecture, according to Telecom Infra Project (TIP) which has created an OpenRAN project group which focuses on developing a vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology based on open interfaces and community-developed standards.

OpenRAN technology is cost-efficient because it helps operators to build mobile networks with lower costs. This will reduce reliance on an exclusive number of vendors and decrease expenditure incurred on infrastructure.

A survey by Mavenir and Senza Fili confirmed telcos’ interest in OpenRAN. In the survey, 68% of the respondents claim they or the wider business is exploring OpenRAN for densification demands, 47% pointed towards greenfield deployments in urban environments, 42% are looking to replace their incumbent suppliers and 5% are seeking validation in the rural areas.

Such a technology can hold great benefits for MNOs. Networks will become futureproof so operators won’t have to replace their infrastructure but do a simple upgrade of the software remotely. In addition, OpenRAN provides scalability and agility across all network components which will allow operators to deliver high throughput without any coverage or capacity limits.

Mavenir is a leader supporting operator and ecosystem business transformation through OpenRAN adoption, as it will enable service providers with more flexibility in vendor selection, cost advantages (Capex/Opex) and future innovations. Mavenir has deployed the first OpenRAN in Brazil, which is a deployment that is truly open – defined as open software on open radio hardware, not a proprietary configuration.

John Baker, SVP, Mavenir, said following the publishing of the survey, “We’ve been participating in and driving OpenRAN business transformation so the results from this survey are very encouraging. For the first time in many years, opportunities for new suppliers in what has been a closed ecosystem are now opening and operators are actively making this change happen.”

Vodafone was one of the first to announce OpenRAN deployment trials in 100+ rural locations in the UK in October and had already tested the technology in parts of Turkey and South Africa, and is undertaking trials in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read said the operator is “ready to fast track” OpenRAN in Europe “as we actively expand our vendor ecosystem. OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no one is left behind.”

In the Middle East, Etisalat became the first operator to successfully launch open virtual RAN. Open vRAN technology accelerates the delivery of mobile networks. This announcement made early January 2020 demonstrates Etisalat’s strong commitment to sustaining its technological leadership by bringing in such technological advances.

The success of this deployment by Etisalat was possible with the collaboration of Etisalat partners Altiostar, NEC, Cisco and other leading vRAN technology vendors.

The solution combines scalability enhancement and virtual networks achieved by integrating equipment from various vendors. Using commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware from third parties, Etisalat is transforming the hardware network to a software-based one.

The vRAN architecture approach decouples the programmable RAN software elements from the hardware, allowing generally available hardware (generic pre-processer) and server platforms to process the RAN software. This results in deployment flexibility, scalability, agility, energy-efficient networks through reducing hardware elements on the network. 

Open vRAN approach reduces time to market, as it is quicker to deploy mobile networks than traditional deployment methods. Additionally, network capacity augmentation and optimization is enhanced by the simplification of nodes and enabling new automated methods and AI algorithms.

Saeed Al Zarouni, senior vice president, Mobile Network at Etisalat, said, “Keeping in line with Etisalat’s strategy of ‘driving the digital future to empower societies’, deploying the Open vRAN is vital in enabling digital transformation aimed at increasing efficiencies and the utilization of AI. Today’s announcement is aligned with UAE’s objectives of achieving digital transformation with the deployment of best-in-class technologies. Etisalat now plans to roll out Open vRAN across the UAE to take full advantage of all the benefits that this new technology offers.”

MTN has also announced that it has deployed over 200 commercial rural sites across its footprint, using OpenRAN technology. MTN is amongst the pioneers of OpenRAN – the technology which enables operators to achieve cost-effective deployments allowing for greater connectivity to previously unconnected areas.

MTN is set to deploy more than 5,000 sites in rural areas across its 21 operations, bringing 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity to areas that were previously unconnected.

“Our Group Technology team has been pioneering OpenRAN, concluding field trials in Zambia in 2018 and deploying commercial sites from the beginning of 2019. We focus on creating viable new RAN solutions alongside the traditional deployments of network technology suppliers in order to accelerate the rural expansion in our markets,” said Rob Shuter, MTN Group president and CEO.

MTN operations in Uganda and Guinea Conakry are already benefiting from this technology, as MTN has also partnered with the likes of VANU, Parallel Wireless and NuRAN Wireless to deliver the technology.

As one of the foremost members of the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), MTN carries out solution testing on all hardware and software elements at its state-of-the-art head office in Johannesburg, South Africa.

By continuing to accelerate innovation through initiatives such as OpenRAN, MTN continues to lead the delivery of a bold new digital world, solidifying its position as a leading mobile operator in the market.

The OpenRAN movement is on the right track and operators are embracing the technology through trials, but commercial deployments might take some time. The survey by Mavenir and Senza Fili has shown that some telcos still have concerns. In fact, 28% of the respondents are worried the performance of OpenRAN won’t match their current infrastructure and 14% are worried about interoperability. And, 11% of the telcos have also considered the maturity of the technology as one of the obstacles. Just like all new technology trends, we have to wait and see whether OpenRAN will become the next big thing or remain an ambitious step for some.

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