Open RAN targets openness and flexible multi-vendor interoperable network architecture, allowing network operators and the partner ecosystem to accelerate time to innovation among other benefits, such as lower the overall Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operating Expenditure (OPEX) of network deployments. Many players are developing and promoting Open RAN technologies and solutions, including the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the O-RAN ALLIANCE, and many other organizations, e.g., the SD-RAN Alliance and Small Cell Forum.
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Open RAN targets openness and flexible multi-vendor interoperable network architecture, allowing network operators and the partner ecosystem to accelerate time to innovation among other benefits, such as lower the overall Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and Operating Expenditure (OPEX) of network deployments. Many players are developing and promoting Open RAN technologies and solutions, including the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the O-RAN Alliance, and many other organizations, e.g., the SD-RAN Alliance and Small Cell Forum.
A cost-effective Radio Unit (RU) Whitebox hardware platform for 4G/5G is one of the most direct ways to offer significant network CAPEX and OPEX reductions in comparison to using traditional proprietary radio solutions. Partnered with some leading global operators and Open RAN technology vendors, TIP group in this year launched its Evenstar program, aiming to build a general-purpose radio reference design. Its initial focus is to design and manufacture a single band (i.e., B3-1800 MHz) RU, supporting 4x40w 4T4R transceiver antennas and costing less than US$1,000. TIP also considers extending the reference design to cover other bands and even support multi-band RU, but this will likely depend on the success and commercial traction of its first simpler design.
Essential Features of Whitebox RU
In contrast to Central Unit (CU) and Distributed Unit (DU) that manipulate digital signals exclusively, the RU converts between digital baseband signals and radio frequencies, or carrier waves. Due to signal processing, energy consumption, and transmission latency constraints, each processing unit within an RU still heavily relies on Special-Purpose Hardware (SPH), prominently Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs). However, this limitation does not impose restrictions on developing SPH-based Whitebox RU to create the standardized, open, and multi-vendor interoperable platform that enables different hardware and software vendors to enter the market and drive innovations. By modularizing internal RU functions, standardizing reference design, and opening interfaces between different processing elements, network operators and radio network systems integrators can theoretically mix-and-match the components and create a customized RU to adapt their specific network deployment needs.
These features of a Whitebox RU have the potential to break the monopoly of traditional RAN vendors’ proprietary radio solutions, lower the market entrance level for small/new vendors, and allow Original Design Manufacturers (ODMs) to manufacture a high volume of cost-effective and innovative components in a timely manner. AceAxis, Baicells, and MTI are three radio companies that are already quite active in the field. However, the promotion of Whitebox RU inevitably comes with several challenges. ABI Research summarizes the key challenges in three folds:
- Competition from Incumbent Vendors: Whitebox RUs will be challenged by traditional RAN vendors from the performance perspective. The pressure of rapid 5G network rollout may urge network operators to still rely on incumbents’ solutions to guarantee the reliability of their network. New RU vendors will need to prove their products are carrier-grade.
- Technical Challenge: The hardware for signal processing has strict latency and power consumption requirements, especially for the radio and physical layer functions. Multi-vendor interoperable RUs may create operational efficiency challenges with unclear responsibilities with respect to the optimization of the end-to-end system.
- Lack of Reference Design and Interface Standards: Whitebox RU reference design and interfaces need some form standardization or industry consensus to attract more hardware and software vendors to enter the market and drive innovation. However, the current stage of open hardware standard and open interface are still under development and need to be further verified.
ABI Research believes these challenges will remain but not stop the development of Whitebox RU. With the success of validation in the field and even an expanded vendor ecosystem, network operators will be confident to speed up their adoption plans.
Impact on Wide Ecosystem
In the 5G era, network operators expect to handle the ever-increased data traffic and coverage issue by promoting massive MIMO and network densification. However, this strategy requires nearly three to four times more basestations to be deployed than the 4G network to cover the same geographical area (given that the uplink remains a challenge), which creates significant CAPEX and OPEX burdens to the operators for their network constructions. Unlike previous generations of wireless technologies, 5G is the key enabler to help various industrial enterprise verticals get access to digital transformative benefits. Due to different network complexity and performance requirements, more flexible and agile deployment strategies are necessary.
Whitebox radio hardware is well-positioned to help achieve these goals, but it is arguably a long-term initiative. It requires certain Tier One network operators along with radio chipset, system hardware, and software vendors to abstract specific attributes of the hardware architecture, and come up with the standardized reference designs and open interfaces. Therefore, attracting more specific module software suppliers and chipset vendors drives innovation in the design of sub-modules, and partnered with equipment vendors and/or system integrators provides customized solutions for network operators and various industrial enterprise verticals. As the development of Whitebox RUs gains momentum, incumbent vendors will likely change their business strategies and embrace the new technology.
TIP’s Evenstar program promises to deliver a US$1,000 Whitebox RU. This does not mean that the development of a low price RU hardware is the only focus of the program, but it is a clear indication that the telco supply chain needs to be changed and main players should embrace more openness and flexible architectures. This initiative is precisely in line with the primary objective of Open RAN to create a healthy, robust, and sustainable alternative telco equipment supply ecosystem. ABI Research expects that Whitebox RU and open network will eventually become the mainstream and have the capability to solve pain points that network operators and various end users are truly facing. The initial deployment focus should be small and greenfield scenarios, e.g., rural, undeveloped area and in-building cases, and then it can move towards larger and densified areas when the solution reaches its full maturity.