Open RAN and virtual RAN have gotten so much media attention lately that some even call it just “hype.” But there is no denying the fact that there has been tremendous commercial traction and meaningful progress in making these concepts mainstream. There was another excellent step in that direction today— a collaboration between long-time Open RAN proponent Vodafone and undisputed radio technology leader Qualcomm to develop reference designs supporting Massive MIMO (MaMIMO) in Open RAN systems.
Growing pains of Open RAN
After more than a decade of discussions and development, Open RAN is marching fast toward becoming mainstream. There has already been incredible progress: launch of 5G virtual and Open RAN network by Rakuten in Japan, following its ground-breaking 4G network, Vodafone tuning its first live 4G Open RAN site in the U.K., many major European operators banding together to commit to Open RAN, and many more.
Even with all this traction, currently, Open RAN can only support the basic features of 5G. The advanced features such as MaMIMO and Carrier Aggregation, which are critical to delivering on the full promise of 5G, are still not supported. This is making the performance of Open RAN systems fall behind that of vertically integrated traditional RAN systems. The biggest hurdle in supporting these advanced features is the inability of general-purpose compute (aka COTS – Commercial Off-the-shelf) used in today’s Open RAN to provide the required performance and incredibly low latency. If not addressed soon, this would have proven a major hurdle in the progress of Open RAN.
As you may recall, Qualcomm had announced its 5G RAN platforms back in October 2020, for virtualized Radio Unit (RU) Distributed Unit (DU) and Distributed Radio Unit (DRU). These solutions, borne out of Qualcomm’s decades of modem expertise, are ideal for latency-sensitive, high-performance radio workloads.
However, much to the chagrin of telecom industry followers, who are accustomed to the traditional approach of vertically integrated purpose-built hardware and software, just having discrete solutions for Open RAN is not enough! Since Open RAN is built with interoperable hardware and software solutions from a large, growing, and disparate ecosystem of small and big vendors, an efficient, and flexible design to tie all of them together is equally critical, if not more. That is exactly why this collaboration between Vodafone and Qualcomm—two technology leaders, is a game-changer.
MaMIMO is critical for 5G
The hallmarks of 5G are its ultra-high speeds and capacity. Even with all the existing and new spectrum, continuously increasing the spectral efficiency and thereby capacity of 5G, is one of the main options to address the insatiable demand for data. MaMIMO is one of the key tools to increase spectral efficiency. MaMIMO is critical for beamforming and beamsteering as well, which enhances coverage, improves cell-edge data speeds, as well increases the overall capacity of the network.
The announced reference designs powered by Qualcomm 5G RAN solutions support up to 64T64R, which means 64 total antennas/streams. They can be shared either in time or frequency domains (TDD or FDD) between uplink and downlinks. The announced reference designs are for both RU which deals with the radio functions, and DU which manages the baseband processing.
Today’s traditional 5G networks already support 64T64R configuration. That means these designs will help Open RAN to close the performance gap.
Vodafone + Qualcomm MaMIMO reference designs address the critical need
The industry consortia such as O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project (TIP) are doing great pioneering work in developing vendor-neutral specifications, and technologies for building Open RAN systems. Both Vodafone and Qualcomm are key members of these groups. In fact, Vodafone has been a major driving force behind both the organizations and its head of network strategy and architecture, Mr. Santiago Tenorio is currently the chairman of TIP.
As mentioned, for open systems such as Open RAN, developing specifications and technologies is not enough. But a reference design like the one announced is essential. Let us compare and contrast that with the traditional approach for clarity. In the traditional approach, once the specifications are finalized, infra vendors such as Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and others take the responsibility to design, build, test, and optimize the full infrastructure solutions based on their proprietary hardware and software. That way they ensure that those solutions are fully conforming to the standards. They are essentially the proverbial “one throat to choke” for operators to ensure the proper functioning of the entire radio network.
Unfortunately, there is no such arrangement in Open RAN. Everybody is a vendor supplying some part of the hardware or software of the system. This issue becomes even more acute when implementing complex features such as MaMIMO which require extreme performance. With this reference design, Vodafone and Qualcomm are taking the mantle of developing a fully functional design to solve those challenges.
In essence, these reference designs significantly lower the entry barrier for the 5G infrastructure market, allowing many small and large innovative companies to enter the ecosystem, and enable them to develop virtualized, fully open, interoperable, and cost-effective Open RAN systems. Just to be sure, the ultimate integration, deployment, testing, and optimization of the full network has to be done by somebody else. More on this in my later articles. So, be on the lookout!
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