Many of us probably have heard news of the 5G competition between vendors such as Huawei, Ericson, Nokia and etc. Often than not, the topic shift into becoming a political issue between countries, since whoever wins determining the dominant status. Examples can be seen by the many sanctions, termination of services and supply chain against the tech giant Huawei which is very much speculated to be aimed at suppressing Huawei’s progress into releasing its 5G technology. The competition has gone as far as to pre-emptive start of the 6G initiative from certain countries in an attempt to overtake 5G due to recognizing that they are lagging behind in the development of 5G technologies.
However, there exist a lesser known initiative called the 5G “LEGO” which may be overlooked by many. This initiative was launched some years ago with the project name of O-RAN (Open-Radio Access Network).
O-RAN 5G is a whitebox gNB device based on an open and disaggregated architecture for 5G Mobile Infrastructure. It is intended to achieve the following objectives such that
- OEMs can leverage the whitebox platform to build a flexible 5G NR RAN.
- GPP based development: No vendor specific “secret sauce” – compliant with industry standardized open interfaces.
- Multi-vendor flexibility within the RAN: the ability to adopt best of breed in the RAN space and reduce reliance on a single vendor.
- Allows for a wide range of vendors to provide innovative solutions
What’s revolutionary about the idea is that it is a vendor neutral and general purpose technology with the ability to construct a cost effective 5G network with the concept of LEGO, by simply plugging in “block” devices in an open platform to enable the 5G services.
Imagine FPGAs, these are sold and programmed accordingly for the usage and purpose of the purchaser. The same concept applies here. All one needs to do is to deploy a “block”, program it and install it into the system. This gives the advantage of making innovations faster by simplifying the process yet achieving the same results. When a process is simpler, it also means it becomes more cost effective to deploy and maintain.
Being vendor neutral also means that operators around the whole world will be using the same architecture and technology, simplifying the integration and deployment, reducing maintenance in the future too.
The idea is a visionary one, but with it also comes many hurdles to overcome.
When vendors develop their 5G services, they come along with their own intellectual properties (IPs). These IPs are developed and set into a unique architecture design for best performance of their product. Integrating an O-RAN piece into their system would mean the need to disclose their IPs for the sake of making a common platform. Obviously this is undesirable and it would be the first challenge O-RAN would need to overcome to create a common platform.
The O-RAN concept would allow one to build the radio platform consisting of various devices from various vendors based on individual preferences. Different vendors may have conflicting directions and business strategies, and therefore here lies the next hurdle. It is left to be seen how much vendors are willing to share and agree to build upon this open platform which may not be in favor of their businesses after tremendous investment in HR, research and development cost.
After every party is in a common ground, the next challenge will be to generalized the technical specifications on integrations as well as the technical standards. The initiative will have to work towards a standard which is agreeable by all parties including vendors, operators and consumers. This process would take time to accomplish as it affects all stakeholders in the entire 5G eco-system. Naturally, the deliberation back and forth from service providers and consumers would be done in a few cycles.
The last challenge will be the modification to the existing platform in order to support the existing solution, 2G/3G/4G. The conventional architectures are still very dependent on individual vendors and with the shift from vendor-specific platform to a generalized common platform, there will undoubtedly be a significant re-investment on the integration of two very different solution.
All in all, in the midst of globalization , having a generalized 5G solution across the globe would go a long way to making it available, economical and sustainable to all parts of the world. But the challenge that comes with it cannot be underestimated, when politics and business interests are factored in, it will take time for the world to converge into a single 5G solution used worldwide by all people.
Still, we remain hopeful!
To know about the initiative, feel free to visit O-RAN