Use Open RAN as innovation driver

Vodafone UK CTO says Open RAN can be a starter agent for network-as-a-service platform transformation.

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Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK, makes an unorthodox point about Open RAN. He says that it gives the operator an entry point towards the digitalisation of the network, with the ability to expose network capabilities to other services driving a network-as-a-service transformation.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, with many looking at core network transformation and the move to 5G Standalone (5G SA) as the natural starting point for that process.

Open RAN gives you an additional injection of innovation or a different mindset, which is not anchored on anything legacy

“Look at it this way. 5G SA is an evolution of 5G NSA (Non Standalone). So you’re already a bit grounded there. You’ve got NSA that was anchored in 4G, and you’ve upgraded to SA. With Open RAN you’re going into the lab with an open mind, starting with this disaggregated software base and nothing else. It’s not born from anything else.”

“So if you come out of the lab and you’ve done all the interoperability, you cannot afford to deploy at scale in the field with legacy deployment mechanisms with a legacy mindset because you’re not going to bring the full benefit. Even Standalone will, to a certain extent suffer from the legacy. But Open RAN gives you an additional injection of innovation or a different mindset, which is not anchored on anything legacy. So you can conceive it in the lab, you can automate test in the lab, you can do all the order-to-provisioning automation, from scratch without any legacy. The secret is then when you transit out of the lab, that you use that as a mechanism to transform your deployment activities.”

Some operators might decide to go with a more integrated radio, and then open that up at a higher layer, at the service and orchestration level – so they’re not so much worried about what happens on the radio, but the Radio Intelligent Controller (RIC) and Service Management & Orchestration (SMO) – that’s where they’ll open up.

Dona counters: “Well, okay, then, if you really want to expose them to the inbuilt network functionalities that are intrinsic in the network, you have to go deep, go and open some of the interfaces to expose those APIs, okay? Otherwise, it’s going to take a shedload of complexity. So that openness helps you quickly expose more APIs. In our view network-as-a-service gives us an alternative so it’s an activity rather than a box.”

So what might be a concrete example, for a business, of engaging with the network as a platform?

“Look at scam APIs. We’ve trialled with a bank, so you’re on a call connected to the IMS network, you can know instantly real time if you’re being scammed, right? Instantly.”

But why is that something you can only do if the RAN is open? In Dona’s example he is talking about exposing certain network functionalities in the IMS. Where is the link with the RAN?

“I was talking to a couple of vendors and a lot of the software companies today are saying, ‘I’ve got software that does not need to interface to a standard API that can actually connect your commands to any legacy equipment’. Yeah, I love that, but I’ve never seen it. They all say they can tap into any device, suck up what they want and just do data federation, without a need for a single source of truth. ‘We can live with multiple sources of truth.’ I haven’t yet seen one that can achieve that, though.

“Yeah, I mean, bring it if I can see it actually working, then you’re right. It’s a valid provocation to say, you don’t actually have to standardise into Open RAN, because you can afford to just put this layer on top that sucks out what you want. Yeah, but I haven’t seen it.

“The other thing to say, while you focus on RAN, you’ve got to think of context, opportunity and challenge. So, I could been lazy and said, let’s just go with what’s available. Yeah, and who would have ended up in another lock in? So we use it as an opportunity to mix it up again, and stimulate that innovation as much needed.”