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12 October 2020

TIP’s blueprints and new groups aim to make open RAN truly deployable

Telecom Infra Project (TIP) had established a strong pattern of using its annual European conference to mobilize major operators to champion, and progress, the open networks cause. This year’s event was virtual, but still made a big impact, with Vodafone continuing its tradition of using the summit to call out the strongest open RAN suppliers. TIP itself, among other things, announced a new Open RAN project group, and a set of blueprints which could be critical to making the new open multivendor networks deployable by the mass of operators.

The new project group brings together two separate RAN efforts and will be chaired by Vodafone and T-Mobile USA, with participation from Bharti Airtel, BT, China Unicom, Intel, Ooredoo, Smartfren, TPG and Vodafone Idea. There will be several sub-groups to ensure mobile operator requirements and priorities, as filtered through TIP’s membership, are fully supported.

The new project group has set out its objectives as disaggregation of the components of the RAN, development of common requirements and vendor roadmaps, lowering of  integration risk and cost, and driving RAN automation via external applications at the network edge.

The component sub-groups will focus on individual OpenRAN components:

  • Radio unit (RU) – defining the RU white box hardware platforms for 4G/5G
  • Distributed Unit (DU) & Centralized Unit (CU) – white box hardware for 4G/5G
  • RAN Intelligence & Automation (RIA) – productize AI/ML use cases for Massive MIMO, such as beam optimization, radio resource management and self-organizing networks (SON).

Segment sub-groups will work on integrated RAN solutions for specific network use cases to improve the business case for deployment. These include:

  • Outdoor – to address coverage and capacity requirements, performance and features for outdoor macro base stations
  • Indoor – to define requirements, performance and features for indoor 5G NR small cells

Andy Dunkin, senior manager at Vodafone Group’s Mobile Access Centre of Excellence, said: “The streamlined OpenRAN structure is a significant opportunity to drive scale and support vendors to more quickly deliver products to the market. We look forward to the Project Group delivering harmonised requirements and proven commercial solutions to support our network deployment objectives.”

TIP has sometimes suffered from perceived crises of identity. It has been portrayed as a rival to the O-RAN Alliance (or the Open Networking Foundation with its new SD-RAN effort). In fact, it works with both groups, and is not, at heart, a definer of standards. It does develop technology, but only where it sees gaps in what is being created elsewhere, and would rather take what O-RAN and others have defined, and make that part of a clear roadmap to commercial, affordable deployment.

Hence the focus on deployment blueprints and the distillation of operator requirements (see below), which makes TIP more like GSMA (from which some of its executives hail) than a standards body.

Dave Hutton, TIP’s chief engineer, said in an interview that, rather than duplicating O-RAN or ONF effort, “we want to pull together those individual pieces of the jigsaw that those organizations are working in and help to piece together the overall picture of what the product looks like.”

Another area of confusion can be that the agendas of Facebook, TIP’s founding father, and major operator supporters like Vodafone and Telefónica  can seem unaligned. The former wants to bring very low cost connectivity to the next billion, while MNOs want to reduce the cost of expanding their existing mobile networks and services, to boost profitability.

Both of these aims require a radical reduction in the cost of deploying and running wireless networks, but the nature of those end-to-end roll-outs will be different. Operators are racing to support ever-more complex 4G and 5G use cases profitably, while Facebook’s universal coverage goal could be based on very simplified equipment and capabilities. And as Rakuten’s landmark roll-out demonstrates, multivendor open networks can initially be complex and expensive to integrate, which raises a question mark over the cost reductions of early adopters, while they can also not avoid the high costs of marketing in mature markets.

All this means that ease of deployment is critical. Some operators, like Rakuten or Vodafone, have deep pockets and the commercial motivation, and technological expertise, to deploy innovative architectures at an early stage, even if the purely financial pay-offs come later.

The majority of MNOs have no such luxury, but will be more likely to adopt open RAN if they have simple, standard processes to follow.

In future, these will include equipment whose common interfaces get operators closer to plug-and-play installation, doing away with the need for systems integration. Operators will be able to choose virtual network functions (VNFs) from an app store, such as the Rakuten Communications Platform store, and download them smoothly to any radio or server.

This vision is for the future, however, but as other organizations such as the GSMA and Small Cell Forum have shown in the past, confidence and adoption can be boosted significantly by more immediate, pragmatic approaches. Notably, integration and deployment blueprints offer MNOs a tried and tested set of common steps to take to implement an open network, based on real efforts by other operators, and on consensus achieved with vendors, regulators and other involved parties such as civil engineers.

The blueprints will be defined by Solution Groups, which will build on the work by Project Groups to design disaggregated network frameworks based on open standards such as O-RAN’s. Key elements of the blueprints will be pre-integration of key network elements and functions, from TIP and partners; and integration and interoperability testing processes for specific deployment scenarios. The aim is to provide common processes and best practice for at least the most common scenarios, in order to reduce cost and time to market.

This will not only be important to MNOs which lack the engineering resources or budget of the major telcos, but also to non-traditional cellular network deployers such as private network operators, enterprises, webscalers and neutral hosts. The interest in the USA’s CBRS spectrum shows there is real demand to deploy 4G and 5G by non-MNOs, and these providers will be able to move more quickly to implement new architectures than most operators – they will be greenfield, and compared to a national macro network, their systems will be more modest in coverage area and traffic load.

The first four Solution Groups include operators and other stakeholders that are particularly keen to boost the open networking momentum and so inject real scale into the ecosystem, with cost and innovation benefits for all, plus an improved balance of power with large OEMs. The four are:

  • Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) including Everis, Facebook, IpT, MTN, Orange, Telefónica and Vodacom
  • Mobile Data Offload including ThinkSmarter, Dublin City Council, Sligo County Council, Facebook, DenseAir and Shoelace Wireless
  • Connected City Infrastructure including Dublin City Council (Smart Docklands), Connect Research, DenseAir, Facebook, Schreder and local mobile operators
  • Open Automation including MTN, Vodafone, Telecom Argentina, Entel, Facebook, Atrinet, GigaMonster and Frinx

Other announcements at the summit included progress updates on deployment of open broadband network gateways and disaggregated cell site gateways (see separate item).

In addition, TIP provided an update on global Open RAN trials being conducted by its members. There are trials or deployments in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Mozambique, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and United Arab Emirates. Despite the global reach, the operators involved are heavily weighted to Europe, and the trials show these big groups seeking to expand in emerging economies as their core markets stagnate, while introducing cost efficiencies.  BT, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TIM (Telecom Italia), Telefónica and Vodafone are the main names.

Most are looking to prove the technology in markets where the networks are less heavily weighted, and where QoS demands may be lower, than in their home bases, but many also have trials at home (DT for instance), and Vodafone and Telefónica have both pledged to support open RAN in most of their cell sites and markets in the next few years.

The results of the early trials and roll-outs are critical, since they are likely to decide whether MNOs’ definition of ‘open RAN’ goes beyond just common xhaul interfaces between radios, distributed units and central units, and extends to the whole base station architecture. They will also help decide whether ‘open RAN’ really does enable multivendor networks and a large base of suppliers, or whether MNOs will stay in their comfort zone with large OEMs which agree to tick the open RAN boxes.

This is where blueprints such as TIP’s are crucial for the whole ecosystem and the open vision. While open core networks are relatively simple to implement, RANs are not, because of their physical elements, and the demanding and mission-critical nature of their processes. Anything that builds confidence that a multivendor, software-based and disaggregated RAN really could be rolled out more quickly than an integrated network, and with the same level of performance and robustness, will be just as significant to open RAN progress as the specifications themselves.

MTN partners with TIP:

African operator MTN announced an alliance with TIP to help evolve its transport networks to support traffic growth and future 5G and enterprise services. It also aims to reduce time to market with more focused and agile service provisioning.

MTN already announced, last November, that it planned to deploy 5,000 open RAN sites within TIP frameworks.

TIP’s chief engineer David Hutton said in a statement: “Through the use of open protocols and interfaces, and the ability to incorporate specific innovations focused on the performance of each network component, TIP’s open disaggregated, standard-based transport networks can help MTN move closer to its ideal transport infrastructure”.