As 5G networks are rolling out, the excitement about the transformative nature of 5G is growing along with the potential for unleashing new diverse applications and services.
The network capabilities will need to expand dramatically to go beyond voice and data communication to controlling infrastructure, manufacturing, transport, enterprise, and new cloud services. As this unfolds, the numbers of connected devices will explode and the network will have to behave differently depending on the device profile and the application.
There’s an intense debate underway on how countries should build secure mobile networks while diversifying the vendor dependency for this critical infrastructure that will have profound implications. Even as this debate rages on, a topic that is getting more prominence in the industry is the idea of building an open cloud-based, software-intensive mobile network due to obvious advantages.
Network transformation required
The underlying infrastructure that powers our mobile networks today is deployed by a limited set of vendors who developed solutions in the traditional mainframe format (i.e., with proprietary hardware running at the bottom of the cell tower with proprietary software). These monolithic solutions are built for a limited capacity, expensive to upgrade, and have hardware that is pre-provisioned for a limited feature set. To launch a service, carriers have to either pay the vendor significant amounts to develop software or to bolt-on additional hardware for specific services.
To overcome these challenges, the mobile industry has to undergo the same transformation that has immensely benefitted the IT industry by disaggregating the hardware from the software with open standards, virtualizing and cloudifying the software, and multiplying the players who can bring innovative solutions to the network. With virtualization, new services can be quickly developed and deployed as virtual network functions, thereby bringing cloud-concepts like modularity, resiliency, agility, automation, and scalability of the software and IT industry to the telecom space.
Lead by example
One of the great examples of this innovative approach is the new network built by Rakuten, an e-commerce company that is building Japan’s fourth mobile network from the ground up. Rakuten took the mobile industry by storm in 2019 when they announced that they are going to embrace this IT/software model and deploy a cloud-based, web-scale mobile network. By reaping the benefits of this paradigm, they were able to build this network on an aggressive schedule at roughly half the cost of conventional networks with a best-of-breed ecosystem of vendors from both the IT and telecom industry.
Where this approach is most impactful is in the radio access network (RAN), which includes the equipment on cell towers that processes complex radio waves from mobile devices and converts them into internet protocol packets. The monolithic approach towards RAN solutions made it one of the largest cost centers for deploying mobile networks and its transformation has become a necessity to realize the promise of 5G. Rakuten selected Altiostar, a Boston-based company, to power its mobile network due to the advances it had achieved in open virtualized RAN technology. This was the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle for Rakuten to deploy its end-to-end open cloud network. Now many other global, mobile operators are making the trip to Japan to consult with Rakuten to learn how to bring this innovation into their networks.
With software and virtual network innovation, this is becoming the beacon for deploying modular, software-defined cloud-based mobile networks that are flexible, less expensive, and more secure.
This innovation that began in Boston could become the path for the United States to lead the world in building mobile networks that fulfill the true promise of 5G.