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  • 13 Oct 2022
  • ·
  • UK

OpenRAN to OpenTowerCo

By Jonathan Freeman, Strategic Growth and Regulatory Director

With its promise of open standards, a wider vendor ecosystem, faster innovation and genuine interoperability, OpenRAN has been capturing the headlines across the telecoms industry.

Attention to date has rightly focused on the technological transformation OpenRAN will enable, with less time spent considering the physical and operational paradigm shift it is likely to bring to the sector. At a roundtable event earlier this year, Cellnex UK spent time with other TowerCos and industry participants exploring what OpenRAN might mean for our part of the sector, and three clear conclusions emerged.

Moving into active is not a passive choice

One of the major strategic decisions that TowerCos face is whether to move into the ownership and/or management of ‘active’ radio equipment. Whilst OpenRAN in itself will not be the determining factor – this is more likely to be strategic direction and shareholder influence – the changes in architecture and value chain composition it is likely to bring may accelerate TowerCo ambitions.

As the network starts to virtualise and intelligence is centralised as it moves into cloud based architectures – be they public or private, centralised or edge based – the elements of the RAN left on tower and rooftop sites will start to simplify. This process of simplification is similar to that of the traditional ‘E2E single vendor’ model used today.

OpenRAN has the potential to move the game on in two key areas. Firstly, the use of shareable Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) hardware will standardise the non-Radio Frequency (RF) elements of site-based solutions.. Secondly, OpenRAN enables a mix and match approach of different vendors, either within a site-based configuration or across different regions or geotypes (e.g. remote vs. suburban). Both factors are key enablers for TowerCos to start to play an expanded role in network provision.

Share and share alike

The foundation and commercial success of the TowerCo industry has been its ability to offer the economics of sharing to its mobile network and other communications provider customers; achieving consolidation of multiple physical assets into a single set of economically and financially efficient ones. The same principles will apply when moving into the active space. Absent of being able to offer economic and operational benefits via enabling sharing of active equipment ownership becomes a purely cost of capital/financial consideration (i.e. MNO financing vs. TowerCo/third party financing).

Whilst very different to today’s operational model, a mobile site comprised of five shared elements is easy to envisage as the RAN rapidly evolves over the next few years:

  • Traditional passive – towers and supporting infrastructure to support multiple operators
  • Power – a shared supply upgraded to meet the capacity roadmap
  • Transmission – shared fibre solutions providing multi service capacity
  • Radio Frequency elements – antennas, feeders, combiners utilised for multiple operators and services
  • Active processing elements – COTS servers which operators install software onto to operate their networks

Beyond the rooftop and tower locations, there is also the potential for TowerCos to host or own Edge data centres. With ownership options ranging from just the physical environment, power and cooling through to the full provision of COTS servers which multiple network operators install and operate their software from.

New roles, participants and relationships

The transformation and realignment of the RAN and Core elements of the network will transform how a mobile network is owned and operated. The current TowerCo experience of dealing with a single vendor (e.g. Nokia, Ericsson) for deployment and operational activity is likely to change significantly.

Systems integration and software engineering, whether undertaken by the MNO or a third party, will play a much more significant role in both the Core and RAN element of the network. As a result, new ways of working will emerge, with a potential fracturing of hardware ownership and operation, and software operation and control, which today is typically single-sourced. TowerCos could therefore see new customer occupancy (e.g. hardware vendors) and operational requirements.

Where a TowerCo owns and operates elements of the active network, new capabilities will need to be developed or sourced, for example; integration/commissioning, network monitoring and service assurance. Some may develop these skills in-house, notably those with a broadcast heritage, whilst others will partner with existing and new industry participants for these services. Even where a TowerCo’s activity remains purely passive, they will encounter new vendors and integrators seeking to deploy technology on their sites – impacting areas such as design, physical deployment, integration and site access.

Different technologies, same principles

The principles of open access and providing shared economics are inherent in the passive activity undertaken by TowerCos today. Virtualisation and deployment of OpenRAN technology will change the way that networks are deployed and operated and enable these principles to be applied to active network ownership and operation.

Cellnex UK has recently joined Digital Catapult’s Wireless Infrastructure Industry Group, which aims to support OpenRAN development as part of the DCMS funded SONIC Labs programme. Find out more here.

 

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