The advent of 5G technology has slowly made way for telecom operators to explore the uses of virtualized RANs. Large operators such as Ericsson AB, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., and Nokia Corp. have been leading players in the ongoing 4G network buildout with traditional radio access network (RAN) architectures. Over the next few years, the fast migration to 5G will offer operators new opportunities to explore virtual RAN (vRAN) deployments since as of now the vRAN technology lacks the requisite standards to prove relevant to the current scenario.
RAN and virtual RAN: Radio access networks(RAN) provide wireless connectivity between end devices like smartphones, PCs or IoT devices and the core of a wireless network. These are implemented in network equipment and typically consist of a base station(including radios at the remote cell site) and base station controllers.
The vRAN, on the other hand, modifies the traditional RAN architecture to include centralized control of wireless functions which in turn optimizes performance and cost. The three main components of the cloud or virtual RAN architecture are:
- a centralized baseband unit (BBU) containing computer resources;
- remote radio units (RRU); and
- transport networks to connect multiple RRUs to the BBU, usually through fiber.
Benefits of virtual RAN: A vRAN uses the principles of network functions virtualization to provide different hosting abilities to virtualized applications on common hardware platforms. Its range of benefits consist of improved performance, reduced Capex and decreased latency. Other vRAN benefits comprise intelligent traffic steering between distributed cell sites, locally cached data to improve speed and increased reliability. In order to deliver the promised performance, 5G architectures require more cell sites in varied sizes as compared to 4G architectures. These implementations are critical for the control and operation of new 5G base stations.
The virtualization of RAN functions requires low latency, high bandwidth connections between different cell sites, and centralized or distributed control points which most likely use fiber optic networks. A RAN is a crucial aspect of a mobile network, and integrating virtual elements from different suppliers is an especially challenging task.
Supplier options for virtual RAN: There are various vRAN suppliers available for mobile operators to choose from, including Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE. Some smaller suppliers are Altiostar Networks Inc., Asocs, Mavenir Systems Inc. and Saguna. It is suggested that only the largest suppliers have the necessary resources to implement and support 5G vRAN so many small suppliers are also progressively partnering with more established ones to assist their migration to 5G.
To conclude, it is safe to say that though vRAN is still in its developmental stages, it is clearly the future where 5G implementations are concerned and mobile operators looking to shift their focus to 5G should put in more work in understanding this concept.