Open RAN: the view on the street

Why should local authorities be aware of Open RAN (open radio access networks) and diversification initiatives that are being encouraged by the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) department? Surely the main selling points of Open RAN are relevant to just operators? 

Most operators are now investing in Open RAN. Open RAN is working towards specifying open interfaces. The objective is to secure a greater range – and choice – of vendors – vendors of processing platforms in base stations, vendors of software modules for base station processing functions, vendors of antennas and vendors of radio units. It also means that some of the base station processing could move to a location away from the mast. 

And with 5G on the way, this is what both operators and the DCMS want: 5G supply chain diversity, solution flexibility and new capabilities – all leading to increased competition and further innovation. 

Other advances will also come into play. Software-defined network architectures will allow for much greater functional flexibility at a lower cost of infrastructure. In other words, there may no longer be a need to build multiple bespoke networks to fit particular use cases. All of this is relevant to operator choice and the operator bottom line. 

Local authorities should be considering how they can potentially benefit from Open RAN and 5G. I discussed this as part of the recent UK5G Digital Connectivity for Places Series. As I pointed out, while getting Open RAN up and running may involve a fair amount of complexity, some of its eventual – if still potential – benefits are easy to understand. These aren’t just economic benefits – for local authorities they could also be aesthetic and environmental benefits. 

Why? Well, it’s clear that voice and data demand will continue to move from fixed communications to mobile. For some local authorities this is worth supporting: encouraging wireless deployment could stimulate innovation and bring economic benefits. But that means more mobile telecoms sites, more planning applications and, potentially, more clutter on our streets. 

Which is where Open RAN comes in.  

Moving some of the base station processing to a location away from the mast means fewer cabinets at the mast site. Similarly, increasing the choice of vendors for radio units, mast-based equipment, hardware platforms and software modules leads to increased competition. This in turn puts authorities in a better position to specify approaches that are, say, more aesthetically pleasing, energy saving and easier to replace when upgrades are required. 

And other advances will support these benefits too. Open RAN is coming together with other architectural concepts such as C-RAN (centralised radio access networks), improved sharing of networks, and the rise of neutral hosts – and with them brings new approaches to the deployment of mobile infrastructure, less equipment at the antenna mast and, ideally, infrastructure that is able to blend in with the streetscape. 

This isn’t a given of course. Open RAN isn’t a done deal yet. There’s a lot of R&D still underway. Issues need to be addressed – issues like security, cost, and how to integrate the multiple vendors that Open RAN will support. There’s also the key question of initial performance. We certainly can’t assume that early Open RAN products will instantly match the performance of incumbent equipment. We may even find that the more forgiving environments of rural and smaller towns would be better initial deployment targets than heavily loaded urban hotspots.  We hope to gain some insights into these trade-offs and the impact of Open RAN equipment on the shape and cost of future mobile infrastructure in a range of environments via Real Wireless’ contribution to the DCMS FRANC Proteus project.   

As with any new technology, therefore, much of the early Open RAN rollout will involve predicting and managing risk. But we also need to predict and manage benefit.  

This is why Real Wireless is helping local authorities to think about the view on their streets – and how Open RAN could improve it.