Building a green network: Sustainability game changers

Carbon emissions: At the heart of the corporate strategy for SPs

At the core of all service provider businesses is their network. Customers expect from these networks a service which is fast, reliable, customisable and cost-effective. For service providers to continue to meet these expectations, they are investing in new technologies that help to improve their performance. This investment includes but is not limited to 5G (SA) core, cloudification, AI and automation capabilities, edge computing, vRAN and O-RAN, fibre to the home and more.

However, at the same time as making these network advancements, service providers are also focused on reducing their carbon emissions. Never before has this been such an important part of the corporate strategy of many large companies, not the least the service providers. Becoming greener has become a top priority politically, economically and socially and is increasingly encompassing all parts of the business, from reducing the use of electricity to trying to increase the amount of recycled and refurbished equipment in use.

In many instances efforts to become more sustainable have been accelerated because of the wave of commitments from service providers to become net-zero companies in the next 10-30 years.1 Achieving these commitments will require changes in operating practices across service providers’ businesses, but particularly, changes in the way that they rollout, operate, manage, maintain and upgrade their networks.

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The single biggest contributor: Green networks

Figure 1 indicates why the networks are such an important element in reducing carbon emissions – because they are by far the most energy-hungry part of a service providers’ business. Last year, the Belgian service provider Proximus reported than more than 75% of their electricity consumption came from their networks.

More than 75% of Proximus’ electricity consumption last year came from its fixed and mobile networks

Green networks - Proximus electricity consumption emissions carbon

There are technological advancements that are both improving network performance and helping to reduce carbon emissions. One such of these is “Moore’s Law” – the observed phenomenon from the co-founder of Intel that while compute speed and power doubles every two years, the cost of the computers is halved. Making smaller, more powerful equipment helps to reduce the embedded carbon of a network and while we expect generally that this trend will continue, it will not be enough alone for service providers to reach their net-zero goals.

Instead, more radical action must be taken. Service providers must accelerate their efforts to prioritise sustainability just as much as performance when it comes to their networks and data centre infrastructure. In this report we discuss five key steps that could be sustainability gamechangers in building green networks. The insights from the report have largely been formed through an interview programme with service providers globally to understand their current efforts and future ambitions.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Five sustainability gamechangers to build a greener network
  • Introduction
    • Carbon emissions: At the heart of the corporate strategy for SPs
    • The single biggest contributor: Why the focus on green networks
  • Re-evaluate the gold standard for network KPIs
    • Impact on carbon emissions
    • Evidence of adoption by service providers
  • Develop best-in-class AI and automation capabilities
    • Impact on carbon emissions
    • Evidence of adoption by service providers
  • Simplify the network to achieve emission benefits today
    • Impact on carbon emissions
    • Evidence of adoption by service providers
  • Ensure workloads are running on green energy as much as possible
    • Impact on carbon emissions
    • Evidence of adoption by service providers
  • Target a power usage effectiveness rating of 0.5 through innovative waste heat solutions
    • Impact on carbon emissions
    • Evidence of adoption by service providers
  • Conclusion

 

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Driving the agility flywheel: the stepwise journey to agile

Agility is front of mind, now more than ever

Telecoms operators today face an increasingly challenging market, with pressure coming from new non-telco competitors, the demands of unfamiliar B2B2X business models that emerge from new enterprise opportunities across industries and the need to make significant investments in 5G. As the telecoms industry undergoes these changes, operators are considering how best to realise commercial opportunities, particularly in enterprise markets, through new types of value-added services and capabilities that 5G can bring.

However, operators need to be able to react to not just near-term known opportunities as they arise but ready themselves for opportunities that are still being imagined. With such uncertainty, agility, with the quick responsiveness and unified focus it implies, is integral to an operator’s continued success and its ability to capitalise on these opportunities.

Traditional linear supply models are now being complemented by more interconnected ecosystems of customers and partners. Innovation of products and services is a primary function of these decentralised supply models. Ecosystems allow the disparate needs of participants to be met through highly configurable assets rather than waiting for a centralised player to understand the complete picture. This emphasises the importance of programmability in maximising the value returned on your assets, both in end-to-end solutions you deliver, and in those where you are providing a component of another party’s system. The need for agility has never been stronger, and this has accelerated transformation initiatives within operators in recent years.

Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning

In 2015, STL Partners published a report on ‘The Agile Operator: 5 key ways to meet the agility challenge’, exploring the concept and characteristics of operator agility, including what it means to operators, key areas of agility and the challenges in the agile transformation. Today, the definition of agility remains as broad as in 2015 but many concepts of agility have crystallised through wider acceptance of the importance of the construct across different parts of the organisation.

Agility today is a pervasive philosophy of incremental innovation learned from software development that emphasises both speed of innovation at scale and carrier-grade resilience. This is achieved through cloud native modular architectures and practices such as sprints, DevOps and continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) – occurring in virtuous cycle we call the agility flywheel.

The Agility Flywheel

agility-flywheel

Source: STL Partners

Six years ago, operators were largely looking to borrow only certain elements of cloud native for adoption in specific pockets within the organisation, such as IT. Now, the cloud model is more widely embraced across the business and telcos profess ambitions to become software-centric companies.

Same problem, different constraints

Cloud native is the most fundamental version of the componentised cloud software vision and progress towards this ideal of agility has been heavily constrained by operators’ underlying capabilities. In 2015, operators were just starting to embark on their network virtualisation journeys with barriers such as siloed legacy IT stacks, inelastic infrastructures and software lifecycles that were architecture constrained. Though these barriers continue to be a challenge for many, the operators at the forefront – now unhindered by these basic constraints – have been driving a resurgence and general acceleration towards agility organisation-wide, facing new challenges around the unknowns underpinning the requirements of future capabilities.

With 5G, the network itself is designed as cloud native from the ground up, as are the leading edge of enterprise applications recently deployed by operators, alleviating by design some of the constraints on operators’ ability to become more agile. Uncertainty around what future opportunities will look like and how to support them requires agility to run deep into all of an operators’ processes and capabilities. Though there is a vast raft of other opportunities that do not need cloud native, ultimately the market is evolving in this direction and operators should benchmark ambitions on the leading edge, with a plan to get there incrementally. This report looks to address the following key question:

Given the flexibility and driving force that 5G provides, how can operators take advantage of recent enablers to drive greater agility and thrive in the current pace of change?

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Agility is front of mind, now more than ever
    • Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning
    • Same problem, different constraints
  • Ambitions to be a software-centric business
    • Cloudification is supporting the need for agility
    • A balance between seemingly opposing concepts
  • You are only as agile as your slowest limb
    • Agility is achieved stepwise across three fronts
    • Agile IT and networks in the decoupled model
    • Renewed need for orchestration that is dynamic
    • Enabling and monetising telco capabilities
    • Creating momentum for the agility flywheel
  • Recommendations and conclusions

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

Access the video recording and presentation slides

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For the report chart pack download the additional file on the left

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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