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September 1, 2021

British rock band Queen's 1984 single 'Radio Ga Ga' was a commentary on television overtaking radio's popularity. Radio, since might have been relegated to the sidelines and yet, it never shared the fate of the telegram. Radio has begun to make waves again in a different technological avatar— the next-gen RAN, the open radio access network (O-RAN). The next-gen RAN is empowered by principles of intelligence and openness, and the architecture lays the foundation for building virtualized RAN on open hardware and cloud with embedded AI-powered radio control. This provides telecom companies with the flexibility to set up software-defined mobile networks, reducing the dependency on hardware manufacturers.

O-RAN architecture is based on standards defined by the O-RAN ALLIANCE, a collaborative group set up by operators including Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, TIM, and Vodafone. It fully supports and complements standards promoted by 3GPP (the global mobile broadband standard) and other industry organizations.

Overcoming the Challenges of Traditional RAN

RAN is built as a closed box that can only connect and communicate with adjacent components. Innovations and network enhancements almost entirely depend on hardware capability. The radio unit of legacy RAN, which is a purpose-built hardware dealing with the lower physical layer, has been exposed to more extreme environments than any other element in telecom network ecosystems. With O-RAN, users can monitor the system at a more granular level, whether at the chipset or RF (radio frequency) mechanical levels. This increases the quality of service, brings down the cost of maintenance, and reduces the overall rate of failure. Moreover, O-RAN provides cloud-scale economics and agility to RAN across technology types (3GPP). It gives telecom operators immense opportunity to add RAN to the cloud-transition plan when making their cloud strategy.

Moreover, the next-gen RAN uses open interfaces to allow smaller operators and vendors to introduce services or customize networks to fit individual needs. These open interfaces also enable a more competitive and vibrant supplier ecosystem through multi-vendor deployments. At the same time, these designs provide innovation with increased speed and democracy.

Building Intelligence into RAN

With the dawn of 5G, networks have become increasingly intricate, requiring denser, richer, and more adapting devices. To build networks with the necessary capacity, they must be self-driving and take advantage of machine learning to automate various processes and reduce operational expenditure. Infusing RAN with intelligence at every level allows for deeper learning and better usage of the system as a whole.

While the new technology has many takers, frontline practitioners feel that O-RAN comes with a significant amount of disintegration. This happens because the architecture splits pieces apart, which raises questions about the product’s overall stability and ease of operability. However, disintegration offers immense possibilities to detect and analyze defects at a granular level. With O-RAN, every mechanical and electrical component’s behavior can be profiled separately, and overall failures can be predicted independently.

Assembling the ORAN Ecosystem

Disaggregated RAN computation of FCAPS (fault, configuration, accounting, performance, security) is the way to deal with heavy computing from operations. FCAPS-related automation and decision-making need to be handled with hierarchy.

A nano-monitoring approach will ensure fault prediction. The deeper the events are brought under vigilance, the closer the event sequencing will get to its origin. This gives more headroom in terms of time to deal with failures and anomalies, and at the same time, stop the whole process that created the fault.

A cognitive operation on its own will be impractical for an O-RAN ecosystem. The O-RAN architecture expands the SDN concept of decoupling the control plane (CP) from the user plane (UP) into RAN, while ushering in integrated intelligence. This enhances the traditional RRM functions by introducing the hierarchal RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) with the A1 and E2 interfaces.

Decoupling allows the UP to become standardized because the CP carries most of the variability. It also allows for advanced control functionality and altogether creates an ecosystem that’s easily scalable, cost-effective, efficient, and has better radio resource management.

One up on the OEM

Getting the real benefit of O-RAN lies in the art of dealing with the best-of-breed in terms of choice of material, electronics, RF components, software stacks, and operating systems. It brings in limitless opportunities for automation to make the whole system behave cognitively and bring in human-like self-immunity.

A nano-monitoring approach of cognitive operation will help to predict faults and make the O-RAN ecosystem flawless for any user. The impact of O-RAN for organizations lies in further modernization and access to a scalable intelligent platform.

Radhakant Das is the global head of Telecom Network Operation and Wireless Network practice of TCS' Communications, Media and Information Services business unit. He has over two decades of global experience with various telecom service providers and product companies. Das co-owns several patents in the area of virtual telephony and messaging services. His areas of expertise include cognitive automation and application of artificial intelligence in telecom networks. Das is a senior member of the Institute of Electronics and Telecommunications Engineers (IETE).

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