Technology is evolving at a faster pace. Cellular networks have transformed from 3G to 4G and now 5G in the past two decades to accommodate various technological innovations. With the advent of 5G, most telecom companies are launching their new products, emphasizing the need for faster connectivity. Networks will now go beyond closed traditional networks to open radio networks, better known as open radio access networks (O-RAN), allowing network providers to offer low-latency, network flexibility, improved competition, and reduced cost.
To comprehend what O-RAN is, it’s important to have a basic understanding of radio access networks (RAN). RAN provides the necessary technology to connect users to the mobile network using radio waves. It’s made up of hardware and software that are integrated together as a complete platform.
The idea of O-RAN is very new and is built on the foundation of RAN elements’ interoperability and standardization. The RAN market is dominated by proprietorships, where only a few RAN vendors offer equipment and software, reducing flexibility and interoperability. The main objective of O-RAN is to allow network operators that opt for RAN elements, including non-proprietary white box hardware and software from different vendors. They no longer need to depend on only one vendor for their hardware and software needs.
The O-RAN standards are being developed using the principles and technologies of virtual RAN (vRAN). It creates a multi-vendor RAN solution that allows disaggregation between hardware and software with open interfaces and virtualization, hosting software that controls and updates networks in the cloud. O-RAN not only improves supply chain diversity and solution flexibility but also offers new capabilities leading to increased competition and future innovation.
In an O-RAN ecosystem, the elements are disaggregated into three main building blocks: Radio Unit (RU), Distributed Unit (DU), and Centralized Unit (CU). The radio frequency signals are transmitted, received, amplified, and further digitized in the RU, integrated into the antenna. The DU and CU are the computation parts of the base station responsible for sending the digitized radio signal into the network.
The key components of O-RAN are:
Cloudification: It involves hardware and software disaggregation and uses RAN applications as cloud-native functions.
Intelligence and automation: It refer to open management and orchestration with external Artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities for automating RAN interfaces.
Open internal RAN interfaces: It includes interfaces defined by 3GPP, including higher-layer split and inter-node communication along with O-RAN lower layer split and real-time RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC).
The advantages of O-RAN are manifold. O-RAN refers to an expanded ecosystem where more than one vendor can provide the building blocks leaving enough room for innovations and more options for operators to choose from. Operators can easily add more services as O-RAN offers more market competition and customer choice, lower equipment costs, and improved network performance.
O-RAN was developed to break the legacy of RAN vendors holding proprietary over equipment and network functions. Proprietary products can be way more expensive than their counterparts as no third-party RAN elements can be easily integrated into a RAN vendors’ infrastructure. As a result, network operators are bound to stick with one RAN vendor’s products.
O-RAN offers an open interface allowing third-party products integration. Network operators can also opt for the less-expensive third-party product that works perfectly on their hardware. This is the main reason why most network operators opt for vRAN architecture for 5G, as using open interfaces can significantly reduce deployment costs. Also, as the 5G technology evolves, network operators working with open standard-based vRANs can easily send updates to the network infrastructure to accommodate those changes.
The O-RAN Alliance is a global organization standardizing specifications for radio access networks. Founded in 2018, this global group now has nearly 30 operators and more than 200 vendor companies associated with them. Taking 3GPP standards as its baseline, the O-RAN Alliance sets and creates extensions specifically for the RAN. They focus on creating blueprints for building the RAN solution enabling parts from different vendors, including mechanisms for enabling artificial intelligence and machine learning for more efficient network management and orchestration.
O-RAN is opening gates for myriads of exciting new opportunities in radio access networks for operators. However, before implementing modern cloud-native implementation of O-RAN, operators need to think about network security.
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