How can Open RAN be used in private networks?

Open RAN provides enterprises with better control over their entire wireless infrastructure

Private 5G networks enable enterprises to secure dedicated bandwidth, custom-tailoring their experience based on their specific needs — whether it’s to assure dedicated coverage, provide coverage where none may be available otherwise or whether it’s to offer higher levels of privacy or security than are available on public networks, massive bandwidth, capacity, or specialized functionality such as low latency. Private networks are fueling another opportunity for enterprises to control their entire mobile communication stack through the deployment of Open RAN technology. 

A report published by Analysys Mason earlier this year provided some context for the reasons why Open RAN is an attractive alternative for private network operators.

“Open RAN, especially when combined with shared or industrial spectrum, can help to enable a diversity of private wireless deployers, which will be important to meet the varying use cases and roll-out scenarios of different enterprises,” wrote Caroline Gabriel, research director at Analysys Mason. 

Open RAN and virtual RAN sales in private networks, projected through 2026. Image via Analysys Mason

“Open RAN deployment in private networks also promises to make private cellular networks more easily deployable and manageable due to open reference designs that are akin to those used in enterprise Wi-Fi. Opening up the ecosystem to new vendors means that a wide range of solutions can emerge that are optimized for various price points, physical environments and use cases, so those deploying networks can select the best price/performance characteristics for their customers,” wrote Gabriel.

Gabriel predicted that current Open RAN design suitability for private networks, coupled with a desire for simplicity in private network designs, will drive Open RAN success in the private space. 

“The private cellular opportunity mitigates the risk for vendors that Open RAN will miss its chance entirely in the macro network market (either because performance and other challenges take too long to address, or because most MNOs feel safer with their established vendors),” she wrote.

She pointed out that some of the same constraints to keep Open RAN from widespread adoption on macro networks make it intrinsically better-suited for private network environments.

“Nearly all enterprise networks have lower and more predictable traffic loads than 5G urban public networks, and are geographically constrained. The network is critical to enterprises’ business, but it will rarely need to support the same density of devices using high-bandwidth applications in a given location as a public network would, so the processing burden on the platform will be considerably lower than that in the macro RAN,” said Gabriel.

To better understand the role of Open RAN can play in private networks, RCR Wireless News spoke with Jagadeesh Dantuluri, general manager of private and dedicated networks for test and measurement firm Keysight Technologies, during the Open RAN Global Forum. Keysight has implemented Open RAN in its facilities, and has seen strong private networking growth in specialized markets like manufacturing, energy, mining, ports, supply chain and medical. Dantuluri underscored that private 5G networks and Open RAN itself are not means to an end, they’re simply technology enablers that open up a new host of possibilities for business.

“Neither 5G nor O-RAN technology by itself is a business case,” said Dantuluri. “Each private network has its own use case. In manufacturing, the requirement could be ‘five nines’ coverage and connectivity, or the latencies have to be very minimal,” he said, referring to the goal of 99.999% uptime. 

In Keysight’s own case, going with a private 5G network and Open RAN was driven by a desire to implement smart manufacturing features to improve the company’s current manufacturing processes, to better track and manage assets, and to enable calibration stations to work mobile and wirelessly. The company also desired to more wholly integrate operational technology and information technology processes under one umbrella. Dantuluri added that the process gives them better insights on their own customers’ possible pain points.

“We are in the business of selling our own solutions to the wireless industry,” he said. “And we want to go through that process to understand the industry pain points so that we can talk to our customers very knowledgeably, and to use this facility as a demo for our own customers.”

When it came time to determine what sort of Open RAN system to deploy, Keysight quickly eliminated Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), said Dantuluri.

“DAS doesn’t provide the positioning accuracy, nor does it have the device capacity” compared to an Open RAN small cell deployment or a traditional small cell deployment, so it was quickly eliminated, he said. Capex deployments for Open RAN ran higher than traditional offerings, Keysight learned. “But over time, the Open RAN total cost of ownership is lower than a traditional small cell deployment,” he said.

“The overall value of Open RAN small cells proved to be better than other models,” he said.

Deployment challenges facing Keysight included verifying that spectrum allocated for the effort was not in use. “Is there any interference in those bands? How do you identify that and locate them?” he asked. However, the network is designed, end-to-end performance verification is vital, said Dantuluri, from the private network’s core to the edge. Testing, monitoring and verification of network functionality and performance must be processes that continue once the network is running, he emphasized.

Dantuluri highlighted that enterprises implementing private 5G networks interested in Open RAN solutions are not experts in mobile technology, and do not need to be. It’s a point that Analysys Mason’s Gabriel made in her report: Network simplicity is a driving need for companies implementing these solutions as means to an end, rather than technology deployments for its own sake.

“Their main focus is their domain expertise,” Dantuluri said, whether that’s manufacturing, mineral extraction or medicine. “The offering have to be simple, the running of the networks has to be straightforward.”

For many businesses, that means “combinations of equipments made as a single offering. It can be from managed solution providers or system integrators or operators,” he added. “But at the end of the day, customers would require a single, integrated solution.”

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