1. Explaining the RIC
As Open RAN continues to make headlines, one word we’re increasingly hearing about is the RIC. The RIC is a new element defined by the O-RAN Alliance that will help operators get every last ounce of use out of their precious spectrum, maximise every possible component within the radio access network (RAN), as well as save energy.
In its design, it will act a super optimisation engine that will be able to take live data feeds from the RAN to make decisions and take actions in near real time. It acts as a platform for Machine learning (ML) applications that can learn from events occurring in the RAN, make predictions, and programme actions accordingly.
2. The top three benefits that I see
There are many potential applications that could be deployed on the RIC, giving operators a range of operational and cost benefits. But here are three that I see as being important.
- Energy optimisation: The RIC might be used to increase energy efficiency of operating components and reduce power requirements across the network by making smart decisions about how to deploy resources. That could mean turning off cells and frequencies during down times. In a cloud RAN network that could be optimised further by balancing and sharing resources across the cloud infrastructure.
- Video service optimisation: Video is a key network service, predicted to continue its domination of data traffic volume by application type. As 5G expands, and consumers and businesses increase take-up, we’ll see use cases driven by live streaming video and new AR/VR services. Some of these may be important to public safety and industrial process. The RIC can provide live prioritisation and optimisation.
- Slice and QoS optimisation: Network slicing creates virtual slices of a network to meet performance parameters defined by an SLA for a particular service or application. RAN slicing is a key component of a truly end-to-end network slice. The RIC can play a key role in enabling network slicing across the RAN, guaranteeing performance for a slice, using ML to predict and deliver required radio resources for a slice. It can extend the programmability of the network to the RAN, in a manageable and vendor-neutral manner.
The flipside of disaggregating solutions that were previously integrated is that operators need to acquire and maintain confidence in the performance of the new solutions, and also in the interoperability of the different functions and parts of the overall system.
3. It can act as an innovation and vendor diversity hub
Because it is designed to support open interfaces, the RIC opens up network intelligence, data analytics and control of the RAN to a wider variety of platform providers and independent software developers. The effect of that is that it gives mobile operators more choice to access innovation, either from external partners or from their own internal development.
Operators might access software that can run very efficient MIMO algorithms, independent of the radio platform vendor they are working with.
4. But putting the pieces together requires testing
The flipside of disaggregating solutions that were previously integrated is that operators need to acquire and maintain confidence in the performance of the new solutions, and also in the interoperability of the different functions and parts of the overall system. To help validate performance and interoperability, VIAVI has designed a three layer pyramid that tests the RIC.
- First we test the E2 interface between the O-CU/ODU and the RIC, and we emulate the messages from the O-CU/ODU on the E2 interface to test conformance. That is followed by the generation of traffic, updates, resets, queries and redefining the service model to stress test the RIC under load.
- Second we emulate RAN scenarios, emulating different subscriber types, movement patterns, cells with anomalies and events in the RAN to train the Machine Learning and AI model of the xApp deployed on the RIC.
- Third and most important is xApp validation, testing fulfilment of a change made by the xApp/RIC on the RAN. Operators can also use this as a benchmarking tool, comparing effectiveness of different xApps before selecting the best ones for their RIC.
We’re seeing players in the market we have not seen before. We’re also seeing operators come to market quicker than many had expected.
5. An increase in demand and new players
We took part in O-RAN Alliance plugfests that in 2020 and then 2021, and over that time we saw a big growth in engagements on RIC testing and validation of xApps. That has been driven by the advent of new players in this area of the mobile network, and by operator demand.
We’re seeing players in the market we have not seen before. We’re also seeing operators come to market quicker than many had expected. That experience is backed up by a recent Heavy Reading survey of operators that found that 10% of its respondents are already underway with RIC deployments, and that a further 66% expected to be within two years.
6. RIC functionality is expanding
Operators are likely to start slowly with the RIC, deploying a simpler xApp like traffic steering, and then expanding functionality. We’re seeing requests not just for the near real time RIC but also for non RT RIC support. To meet that, we have O1 interface support on the near term roadmap, supporting the connection to the Service Management and Orchestration layer.
In terms of increased functionality, we’re also anticipating requirements for massive MIMO and RF channel modelling apps on the RIC, and we are responding quickly to customer needs in those areas.
7. We’re on the edge of something new
Opening up a previously closed area of the network is always exciting, but not without operational risk. And with the RIC, because it is specifically designed to encourage and enable innovation and vendor diversity, bringing in more newer players, compliance and validation is going to be key. Operators and integrators need to have partners that can provide test solutions that are flexible and forward-looking. With the right capabilities and system,
the test process can go from being a brake on innovation to actively enabling it, bringing in new players and verifying them quickly for market.
Owen O’Donnell is Product Marketing Manager, Viavi. Click for more information on the RIC, deployment challenges and Viavi’s test methodology.