How Open-RAN could ‘white-box’ 5G

Open-hardware, software-defined mobile radio infrastructure could kick-start private LTE and 5G and perhaps eventually lead to their supremacy over Wi-Fi for enterprises.

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One of Britain’s principal mobile networks, O2, has just announced that it intends to deploy Open Radio Access Network technology (O-RAN) in places.

O-RAN is a wireless industry initiative for designing and building radio network solutions using “a general-purpose, vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology,” explains Telecom Infra Project, the body responsible, on its website.

TIP is the trade body that, along with Intel and Vodafone, conceived of the technology alternative – an attempt at toppling the dominance of Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, which provide almost all mobile telco infrastructure now.

O2 joins fellow UK mobile operator Vodafone, which is also experimenting with O-RAN.

O2 is working with partners including; Mavenir, DenseAir and WaveMobile to introduce O-RAN solutions, the Telefónica-owned network says in a press release.

What it means by that is that by encouraging less powerful, smaller vendors to provide infrastructure, the grip that Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia hold over mobile networks might be lessened. Costs could be reduced because those big three would have to reduce prices to remain competitive.

But most interestingly, it also allows for the standardizing of telco infrastructure, possibly making future private mobile networks cheaper and easier to implement. Private LTE and 5G networks are expected to genearate $4.7 billion in revenue by the end of this year, according to an SNS Telecom & IT report published in October. That number is expected to be $8 billion by the end of 2023.

Indeed, white-box telco equipment might be the result. White-box IT hardware is used in enterprises, and could be advantageous in telco equipment, too. Conceivably, as telco equipment prices and availability became more within reach, along with the availability of new, unlicensed, shared spectrum, such as is being launched in the U.S. with Citizen Broadband Radio Service; then implementation of a an enterprise-level, private LTE or 5G network, with “white-box” hardware and programmable software-defined networks, may be one-day no harder than a Wi-Fi network install, common now.

By providing authority over wireless coverage and capacity, private LTE and 5G networks ensure guaranteed and secure connectivity, while supporting a wide range of applications,” SNS Telecom & IT says of private mobile networks in its report. Factory robotics and IoT sensor  networks will be driving that investment. LTE and 5G are being pitched as more reliable than Wi-Fi, in part because of less congestion. Private mobile networks can be provided by existing mobile-network operators or built independently.

In the case of TIP’s O-RAN, the vision is for modular base stations with a software stack functioning on common, off-the-shelf hardware, called COTS. Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are also part of the concept.

“Thus the main objective of this project is to have RAN solutions that benefit from the flexibility and pace of innovation associated with software-driven developments on fully programmable platforms,” TIP said on its website last year. The influence of Wi-Fi diminishes.

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