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You need only one hand to count the number of people who have climbed Mount Everest solo and lived to tell the tale. In fact, going it alone is so risky that Nepal banned it.
Open RAN is similar. Their architecture is so fundamentally new and complex that only the most foolhardy operator or vendor would try to climb their steep learning curves alone.
The Legacy Imperative
If that weren’t enough of a challenge, 5G and Open RAN have to be deployed alongside 4G and even 3G because no operator can afford to abandon so many customers. A prime example beyond the consumer market is IoT: In early 2022, over 60 percent of IoT modules on the market were 4G, according to ABI Research. Less than 5 percent were 5G.
“This is not surprising, due to 5G not being applicable to many IoT applications outside of the automotive space and for fixed wireless terminals, due to the original release of 5G baseband modems being aimed at consumer mobile broadband market,” says Harriet Sumnall, ABI Research IoT hardware and devices research analyst. “4G is a technology that is globally available and is the current technology of choice for mid-to-long term future proofing of IoT devices.” When IoT customers are told that their legacy network will sunset, it forces them to evaluate their operator and technology options. That’s an open invitation to churn, especially if they’re upset with their current operator’s decision to sunset 4G.
The Interoperability Conundrum
Bottom line: For mobile operators and vendors alike, a 5G Open RAN migration strategy must include bringing 4G along for the ride — or even 3G, in some cases. These legacy requirements bump up the complexity, as well as the need for partners to help navigate the options.
For example, the 5G Open RAN migration strategy must provide a bridge between the traditional infrastructure for 4G and 5G’s cloud-native architecture (Figure 1). That’s challenging because Open RAN gives operators the flexibility to implement hardware and software from multiple suppliers, thus avoiding the vendor lock-in of traditional RAN architectures. In the past, a generational migration was from one vendor to another. With 5G Open RAN, a brownfield operator is going from one or possibly two vendors to three, four or more.
Figure 1: The O-RAN Evolution Fundamentally Changes Mobile Network Architecture
Ensuring that all the 5G Open RAN solutions play nicely with one another is tough enough. Adding in 4G or even 3G elevates that challenge to the next level. For example, operators need to ensure that their new 5G network isn’t undermining 4G performance and QoS.
Test Early and Often
These requirements create enormous business opportunities for infrastructure vendors that are willing and able to configure their solutions to:
- Support multiple radio generations.
- Bridge traditional infrastructure architecture and the new, cloud-native environment.
- Integrate with solutions from the operator’s incumbent vendor(s).
It’s hubris for a vendor to assume that its market dominance in 4G ensures success in 5G, too. Open RAN is a giant reset, effectively putting the big incumbents all back at the starting line, and alongside smaller newcomers. As a result, every vendor must be willing to work with the rest of the ecosystem — not just on 5G, but also by supporting 4G and 3G. This includes test vendors.
“While Open RAN provides greater vendor choice and flexibility in implementation, it also increases opportunities for incompatible configurations from multiple possible combinations of software and hardware,” said Deloitte in a recent report. “Each combination of multivendor end-to-end solutions must undergo extensive testing in a controlled environment…”
The controlled environment recommendation is solid advice because a live network is the last place to be ferreting out interoperability, performance and other problems. At the very least, testing at that late-stage risks delaying commercial launch of the network, putting the operator at a major competitive disadvantage.
A key component of the test plan is the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), which is the “brains” of the operation. Testing the RIC helps ensure that all network elements are operating correctly, both independently and in conjunction with other vendors’ platforms.
Testing also should include the individual O-RAN Radio Units (O-RUs), Distributed Units (O-DUs) and Centralized Units (O-CUs) and RIC network elements, as well as full, end-to-end open network validation including the Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) and Core Network. The ideal test platform can perform all of these in public, private and edge cloud environments.
Finally, vendors should look for a test solution that can be deployed on a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) server. This design enables them to deploy focused functional test tools earlier in the development cycle.
All Together Now
VIAVI believes that a collaborative ecosystem is key for ensuring that 5G Open RAN lives up to its potential. That’s why earlier this year, VIAVI announced extensions to its Open RAN end-to-end test and assurance solutions. These are augmented by partnerships with major vendors such as:
- Capgemini Engineering: The two companies have collaborated on a 5G Open RAN lab test capability, powered by VIAVI’s O-RAN Lab as a Service (LaaS), to ensure successful network integration of 5G networks and accelerate Lab-to-Live trials for Open RAN.
- Ericsson: VIAVI will provide geolocation capabilities as a non-real-time RIC application (rApp) on the Ericsson Intelligent Automation Platform, a service management and orchestration product that enables any type of mobile network — purpose-built or Open RAN — to be intelligently automated.
- Rohde & Schwarz: The two companies have partnered on an integrated solution for conformance testing of O-RUs, including the O-RU Test Manager, which ensures a seamless user experience.
This kind of collaboration ensures the vendor ecosystem is fit for purpose for the kind of multi-layered testing in a controlled environment that consultants such as Deloitte recommend. It’s also an example of a growing industry recognition that a group effort is key for ensuring that 5G O-RAN lives up to its potential for both operators and their customers.
Just as it’s foolhardy to try to climb Mount Everest solo, it’s shortsighted for any company to ignore the steep learning curves of 5G and Open RAN, along with the messy complexity that comes with mixing an unprecedented number of vendors in a single network. Go it alone, and 5G Open RAN becomes the hill you die on. A team effort — where every vendor brings its strengths to the test environment and is ready to learn and improve — is critical. By recognizing that reality, vendors can position themselves to capitalize on the 5G Open RAN market opportunity.
Find out more about the VIAVI Open RAN test suite here.