Open RAN: What should telcos do?

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Related webinar: Open RAN: What should telcos do?

In this webinar STL Partners addressed the three most important sub-components of Open RAN (open-RAN, vRAN and C-RAN) and how they interact to enable a new, virtualized, less vendor-dominated RAN ecosystem. The webinar covered:

* Why Open RAN matters – and why it will be about 4G (not 5G) in the short term
* Data-led overview of existing Open RAN initiatives and challenges
* Our recommended deployment strategies for operators
* What the vendors are up to – and how we expect that to change

Date: Tuesday 4th August 2020
Time: 4pm GMT

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What is the open RAN and why does it matter?

The open RAN’ encompasses a group of technological approaches that are designed to make the radio access network (RAN) more cost effective and flexible. It involves a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible

The traditional, legacy radio access network (RAN) uses dedicated hardware to deliver the baseband function (modulation and management of the frequency range used for cellular network transmission), along with proprietary interfaces (typically based on the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) standard) for the fronthaul from the baseband unit (BBU) to the remote radio unit (RRU) at the top of the transmitter mast.

Figure 1: Legacy RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

This means that, typically, telcos have needed to buy the baseband and the radio from a single vendor, with the market presently dominated largely by the ‘big three’ (Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia), together with a smaller market share for Samsung and ZTE.

The architecture of the legacy RAN – with BBUs typically but not always at every cell site – has many limitations:

  • It is resource-intensive and energy-inefficient – employing a mass of redundant equipment operating at well below capacity most of the time, while consuming a lot of power
  • It is expensive, as telcos are obliged to purchase and operate a large inventory of physical kit from a limited number of suppliers, which keeps the prices high
  • It is inflexible, as telcos are unable to deploy to new and varied sites – e.g. macro-cells, small cells and micro-cells with different radios and frequency ranges – in an agile and cost-effective manner
  • It is more costly to manage and maintain, as there is less automation and more physical kit to support, requiring personnel to be sent out to remote sites
  • It is not very programmable to support the varied frequency, latency and bandwidth demands of different services.

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Moving to the open RAN: C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN

There are now many distinct technologies and standards emerging in the radio access space that involve a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

We have adopted ‘the open RAN’ as an umbrella term which encompasses all of these technologies. Together, they are expected to make the RAN more cost effective and flexible. The three most important sub-components of the open RAN are C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN.

Centralised RAN (C-RAN), also known as cloud RAN, involves distributing and centralising the baseband functionality across different telco edge, aggregation and core locations, and in the telco cloud, so that baseband processing for multiple sites can be carried out in different locations, nearer or further to the end user.

This enables more effective control and programming of capacity, latency, spectrum usage and service quality, including in support of 5G core-enabled technologies and services such as network slicing, URLLC, etc. In particular, baseband functionality can be split between more centralised sites (central baseband units – CU) and more distributed sites (distributed unit – DU) in much the same way, and for a similar purpose, as the split between centralised control planes and distributed user planes in the mobile core, as illustrated below:

Figure 2: Centralised RAN (C-RAN) architecture

Cloud RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Virtual RAN (vRAN) involves virtualising (and now also containerising) the BBU so that it is run as software on generic hardware (General Purpose Processing – GPP) platforms. This enables the baseband software and hardware, and even different components of them, to be supplied by different vendors.

Figure 3: Virtual RAN (vRAN) architecture

vRAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Open-RANnote the hyphenation – involves replacing the vendor-proprietary interfaces between the BBU and the RRU with open standards. This enables BBUs (and parts thereof) from one or multiple vendors to interoperate with radios from other vendors, resulting in a fully disaggregated RAN:

Figure 4: Open-RAN architecture

Open-RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

 

RAN terminology: clearing up confusion

You will have noticed that the technologies above have similar-sounding names and overlapping definitions. To add to potential confusion, they are often deployed together.

Figure 5: The open RAN Venn – How C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN fit together

Open-RAN venn: open-RAN inside vRAN inside C-RAN

Source: STL Partners

As the above diagram illustrates, all forms of the open RAN involve C-RAN, but only a subset of C-RAN involves virtualisation of the baseband function (vRAN); and only a subset of vRAN involves disaggregation of the BBU and RRU (open-RAN).

To help eliminate ambiguity we are adopting the typographical convention ‘open-RAN’ to convey the narrower meaning: disaggregation of the BBU and RRU facilitated by open interfaces. Similarly, where we are dealing with deployments or architectures that involve vRAN and / or cloud RAN but not open-RAN in the narrower sense, we refer to those examples as ‘vRAN’ or ‘C-RAN’ as appropriate.

In the coming pages, we will investigate why open RAN matters, what telcos are doing about it – and what they should do next.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • What is the open RAN and why does it matter?
    • Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible
    • The open RAN: disaggregated and flexible
    • Terminology, initiatives & standards: clearing up confusion
  • What are the opportunities for open RAN?
    • Deployment in macro networks
    • Deployment in greenfield networks
    • Deployment in geographically-dispersed/under-served areas
    • Deployment to support consolidation of radio generations
    • Deployment to support capacity and coverage build-out
    • Deployment to support private and neutral host networks
  • How have operators deployed open RAN?
    • What are the operators doing?
    • How successful have deployments been?
  • How are vendors approaching open RAN?
    • Challenger RAN vendors: pushing for a revolution
    • Incumbent RAN vendors: resisting the open RAN
    • Are incumbent vendors taking the right approach?
  • How should operators do open RAN?
    • Step 1: Define the roadmap
    • Step 2: Implement
    • Step 3: Measure success
  • Conclusions
    • What next?

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5G and MVNOs: Slicing up the wholesale market

Introduction

How will 5G MNVO models differ from what’s gone before? MVNOs occupy an important set of market niches in the mobile industry, ranging from low-cost generic consumer propositions by discount retail brands, through to some of the most advanced mobile offers, based on ingenious service-level innovation.

The importance and profile of MVNOs varies widely by country and target market segments.  Worldwide, there are around 250 million consumer subscribers using virtual operators’ branded services. IoT-focused MVNOs add many more. In many developed markets, MVNOs account for around 10-15% of subscribers, although in less-mature markets they are often not present at all, or are below 5%.

In Europe, the most mature region, there are around 100m subscribers, focused particularly on German and UK markets. Globally, MVNO revenues are estimated at around $70bn annually – a figure expected to grow to over $100bn in coming years, as markets such as China – which already has over 60m MVNO subscribers – gain more traction, bolstered by regulatory enthusiasm. IoT-centric and enterprise MVNOs are also growing in importance and sophistication, particularly for cross-border connectivity management.

While many MVNOs are aimed at lower-end consumers, with discounted packages under retail, banking or other brands, plenty more are more sophisticated and higher-ARPU propositions. Some fixed/cable operators want a mobile wholesale offer to expand into quad-play bundles. Increasingly, the MVNO model is going far beyond mass-market consumer offers, towards IoT and enterprise use-cases, that can add extra services and functions in the network or SIM.

Some 4G-only mobile operators have 3G MVNO arrangements for customers moving beyond their infrastructure footprint. Google has its pioneering Fi MVNO service, which switches users between multiple telcos’ infrastructures – and which is perhaps a testbed for its broader core/NFV ambitions. A variety of frequent-travellers or enterprise users seek customised plans with extra features, that mass-market MNOs cannot provide. In addition, many IoT connections are also provided by third parties that repackage MNOs’ network connectivity, often to provide global coverage across multiple underlying networks, tailored to specific segments or verticals. For example, Cubic Telecom, an automotive-focused CSP, is part-owned by Audi.

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Operating with a variety of different business models and technical architectures, MVNOs are also relevant to mobile markets’ competitive functioning, especially as larger networks consolidate. Regulators vary in the degree to which they encourage virtual operators’ establishment and operation.

Some MVNOs, described as “full” or “thick” operate their own core networks, while other “light” or “thin” providers are essentially resellers, usually with their own billing platform but little more. Confusingly, some avoid the use of the term MVNO, especially in the IoT arena, often just describing themselves as offering “managed connectivity” or similar phrases.

Figure 1: Thick vs thin MVNOs and resellers

Thick vs. thin MVNOs and resellers

Source: Mobilise Consulting

This all presents a challenge for normal mobile operators – at one level, they want the extra reach and scale, using MVNOs as channels into extra customer groups they cannot easily reach themselves. They may even want their own MVNO operations in countries outside their licensed footprint – TurkCell and China Mobile are examples of this. But they also worry that as MVNOs go beyond resale, they start to capture additional value in certain lucrative niches, or worse, become an “abstraction layer”, aggregating and commoditising multiple underlying networks, facilitating arbitrage – especially by using eSIM or multi-IMSI approaches. Google Fi has raised eyebrows in this regard, and Apple has long been feared for wanting to create an MVNO/AppStore hybrid to resell network capacity.

That said, even simple MVNO operations are not that simple. Setting up billing systems, legal agreements, network integrations and other tasks is still complex for a non-telecoms firm like a retailer or sports/entertainment brand. A parallel ecosystem of specialised software vendors, systems-integrators and “MVNO platforms” has evolved, with subtly-different types of organisation called MVNA (mobile virtual network aggregator) and MVNE (mobile virtual network enabler) doing the technical heavy-lifting for brands or other marketing organisations to develop specialised – and often tiny – MVNOs.

What is uncertain is how much of this changes with 5G – either because of innate technical challenges of the new architecture, or because of parallel evolutions like network virtualisation. These could prove to be both enablers and inhibitors for different types of MVNO, as well as changing the competitive / cannibalisation dynamics for their host providers.

This briefing document describes the current state-of-play of the MVNO landscape, and the shifts in both business model and technology that are ongoing. It considers the different types of MVNO, and how they are likely to intersect with the new 5G world that is set to emerge over the next decade.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Why (and where) are MVNOs important?
  • Different types of MVNO
  • Full and “Thick” MVNOs, MVNEs and MVNAs
  • MVNO opportunities: what changes with 5G?
  • Consumer MVNOs – more of the same, just faster?
  • The rise of enterprise, verticals and IoT – catalysed by 5G?
  • MVNOs and network slicing
  • 5G challenges for MVNOs: network and business
  • Technology: It’s not just 5G New Radio
  • 5G New Radio
  • 5G New Core and network slicing
  • Devices, 5G and MVNOs
  • Other technology components
  • What happened with 4G’s and MVNOs?
  • VoLTE was a surprising obstacle for MVNOs
  • Growing interest in full MVNO models
  • 5G MVNOs: Business and regulatory issues
  • Cannibalisation: The elephant in the room?
  • Can MNOs’ wholesale departments handle 5G?
  • Can MVNOs operate network slices?
  • Regulatory impacts on MVNOs with 5G
  • What do enterprises and IoT players want from 5G and MVNOs?
  • Hybrid MNOs / MVNOs
  • Conclusions 

Figures:

  • Figure 1: Thick vs. thin MVNOs and resellers
  • Figure 2: MVNO segments and examples
  • Figure 3: 5G predicted timeline, 2018-2026
  • Figure 4: 5G New Core network architecture
  • Figure 5: Do MNOs need to reinvent the wholesale function?
  • Figure 6: MVNO relationships are part of the future B2B/vertical service spectrum

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