Industry Thought Leadership

Open RAN to Create an Evolution in the Telecom Industry

October, 2021
Mohamed H Almarzooqi
Acting CTO-International

Etisalat Group

Open radio access networks (Open RAN) are the dominant topic of discussion in the mobile network world today. A movement to disaggregate wireless telecommunications RAN functions and create open interfaces between them, Open RAN promises a future in which long-term costs for mobile operators are sharply reduced, vendor competition is increased, network flexibility is enhanced, and opportunities for innovation are expanded.

The Open RAN movement closely parallels the evolution from proprietary systems to open systems to virtualisation that occurred in the IT industry beginning in the 1980s. That earlier example offers convincing proof that moving away from proprietary hardware and software to interoperable systems is beneficial for all parties.

Companies across the mobile ecosystem agree. Mobile operators, network equipment manufacturers, chip makers, and software vendors around the globe are joining a growing number of Open RAN standards and advocacy organisations, and prominent Open RAN deployments have demonstrated the commercial viability of the technology.

The Open RAN architecture is purposely designed to meet the evolving needs of mobile operators.

What Open RAN means for operators?
The advent of 5G and its escalating demands for long-term investment in capacity, power, backhaul infrastructure, and more are forcing operators to take a hard look at how best to accommodate growth, ensure QoS, and simplify their architectures while getting the lowest network total cost of ownership (TCO).

For many, it’s time for a wholesale reevaluation of the future of their networks, especially in urban markets. The current high cost of hardware, software and services has made it difficult to build a business case for network expansion into low average revenue per user (ARPU) markets.

Bringing modern mobile communications to less populated areas is a priority for many jurisdictions around the world. Access to high-speed Internet service is essential to supporting public education, local business, healthcare access, financial services access, and more. However, building out networks in remote communities requires major CAPEX investments that offer little or no near-term ROI.

Operators have advanced technology roadmaps and product capabilities but have not yet been able to leverage them fully because the rest of the market have yet to catch up. The delay between making technology investments and earning revenue from them has put pressure on operators’ balance sheets.

There is not enough clarity on how best to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation in network operation and planning to reduce cost and enhance availability. Vendors and Open RAN advocacy groups are working to ensure that AI and automation will be major factors in making Open RAN more affordable and reliable, yet many operators are unclear on how best to proceed.

Growing competition will continue to put pressure on operators to find new ways to drive revenue and profitability. New players are entering the telecom market, particularly in the Internet of Things (IoT) and space telecommunications arenas. As new use cases such as autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and automated factories emerge, mobile operators will need to support communication between a million devices per square kilometer (compared w/ 100k for 4G). MNOs will only be able to take advantage of these opportunities if they can scale up their networks affordably.

Open RAN, the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), and automation offer an important way to address these pain points by helping operators lower their CAPEX and OPEX while expanding services into new markets, building their customer bases, and ensuring optimum quality of service (QoS) for subscribers.

With Open RAN and its inherent features of virtualisation
The RIC and the automation are absolutely essential to ensure an Open RAN environment that delivers greater freedom of choice while keeping CAPEX and OPEX manageable for mobile operators. With the capabilities that Open RAN provides, mobile operators will gain the ability to fulfill the promise of new IoT and other emerging use cases in urban environments, expand their networks into new territories to bring 5G within reach of underserved markets, and the solid architectural foundation they need to plan effectively for the long term. Above all, Open RAN will ensure that all mobile residential and business customers have access to the communications solutions they need to improve and enrich their daily lives.

How automation and the RIC address operator challenges
Automated orchestration and management is key in order to achieve the benefits provided by a cloud-native Open RAN solution. Automation with modern tools and technologies can bring in several advantages and help in different stages of network deployment starting with preparation to rollout a network or a new service, followed by creation to roll out the prepared plan, then operate and monitor the network once it is rolled out. Finally, terminate to shutdown/scale down the network or the service as required. This very much aligns with the business needs-driven network deployment model.

Etisalat among the first to implement Open RAN
Etisalat supports technology innovation and is often among the first mobile operators to test and implement new ideas that can enhance its competitive strength in the marketplace and deliver a better customer experience. That is why Etisalat is supporting Open RAN testing and evaluation with the goal of implementing an Open RAN solution once all technical aspects and conditions have been fulfilled.

Etisalat Group, Saudi Telecom Company STC, Zain Group, Mobily, and du, from Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC), joined forces recently to push forward the implementation of Open RAN solutions in their existing telecom networks, share their industry knowledge and experience setting a clear path to drive innovation for the ICT sector across the Middle East.

Mohamed Almarzooqi, Acting International CTIO of Etisalat Group said: “With Open RAN and its inherent features of virtualisation and automation Etisalat will be able to meet the needs of our customers cost-effectively in central Asia and beyond. An Open RAN system will help us not only extend our initial investment, but also help us innovate and bring new services quickly now and in the future.”

In April of 2021, Etisalat announced a partnership with Parallel Wireless to deliver central Asia’s first Open RAN implementation. When completed, the implementation will be the world’s first cloud-native O-RAN-compliant 5G 4G 3G 2G Open RAN solution.The solution is being developed in collaboration with Intel on a hardware platform based on Intel Xeon scalable processors by leveraging its AI/ML capabilities.

Such new hardware features combined with AI/ML tools and optimised Software Development Kits (SDK) software optimisations greatly enhance the performance of telco domain AI applications.

Etisalat Afghanistan achieved greater agility, resilience and portability
The easy scale-out and hardware decoupling of Open RAN in Afghanistan provided greater agility, resilience and portability across cloud environments for greater TCO savings.

Etisalat was able to replace legacy 2G/3G/4G systems with Remote Radio (RRUs) from the Open RAN radio hardware ecosystem with white box solutions that will be able to be upgraded to 5G in the future.

Etisalat’s strategic goal is to build and grow wireless networks to provide next-generation digital services to its customers in the region by assembling viable solutions that build on an open and modular architecture, improving service agility through cloudification, reduce operational costs across geographically distributed sites with automation.

Etisalat expects that Open RAN will open the door to greater competition among vendors, enabling the company to evaluate solutions from a larger pool of telecom vendors. Greater competition and innovation will lead to improved OPEX and CAPEX. Etisalat also believes that software will emerge as the primary component in the telecommunications industry and will facilitate the introduction of AI to its portfolio of products.

(Excerpts from a white paper on the vital roles of the RAN intelligent controller and automation in Open RAN created by Etisalat and Parallel Wireless)