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The rise of a new world order, in mobile technologies

Today is a golden opportunity for start-ups and smaller companies from emerging countries such as India and others to seize the moment, embrace the Open architecture initiatives in the wireless domain and create a newer eco systems of innovative and cost effective solutions for 5G and beyond.

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Wireless networking, around the world, is revving towards a total metamorphosis. Newer, scalable, intelligent, cost effective and Open technologies are spreading their wings to alter the existing wireless communications networking landscape, like never before. This phenomenon has become more palpable in the past few months of 2020, when large tracts of our lives and modes of communication have become almost entirely digital.

The virtual takeover

Our workplaces are increasingly virtual, our shopping is virtual, our education is going virtual, our entertainment is predominantly virtual and the delivery of healthcare is going the virtual way. Most importantly, many of our closest connections are sustained through virtual platforms.

This recent shift makes it imperative for builders of these technologies and platforms to make their products and services more intelligent and compelling (for users), while also being more open and feasible, for themselves.

Software Defined Networking (SDN) Technology 

In the last decade, SDN Technology that emerged as a technology of choice among many enterprise networks was aimed at making networks more flexible, cost-effective and capable of integration. It helped improve network performance by decoupling the network control and forwarding functions, thereby enabling network controls to be programmable. SDN communicates with applications via an Application Programming Interface (API) and allows users to control virtual resources through control planes, instead of physical infrastructures such as routers and switches. It can virtualise a whole network, as compared to conventional networks.

Open Radio Access Network

The next frontier in making an Open, Virtualised, Software Defined Networking infrastructure is the Radio Access Network (RAN) of mobile networks. With many initiatives such as OpenRAN by Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and ORAN alliance, the movement towards an Open ecosystem is gathering momentum.

Rakuten, a Japanese ecommerce platform company turned mobile network operator led the world by deploying the world’s first completely cloud-based Greenfield mobile network, based on a virtual RAN concept. OpenRAN is being used to Virtualise Radio Access Networks to meet the growing demands that require scalability, increased management efficiencies and profitable operations. The virtualized architecture deconstructs parts of the RAN and allows service providers to gain economies of scale, through shared software-defined functions, while also improving processing efficiency required by latency-sensitive applications.

Machine Learning (ML) & Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In addition to bringing a new dawn to the ecosystem of telecom equipment providers, Virtualized OpenRAN has thrown open a new, more intelligent network infrastructure driven by AI/ML. This was not possible in the earlier aggregated network. With more computing power available in virtualizsd, cloud-based platforms, the scope for adding more intelligence and automation to the network has a huge potential. Now, this is where newer start-ups are bringing in innovation and newer ways to manage and operate - networks more efficiently.

Even before the COVID 19 enforced WFH environment, data traffic was continuously straining the capacity of communication networks. With the current COVID-related increase in online activities, plus the influx of new applications of communications such as the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable devices, autonomous systems and drones with vastly different performance requirements, even more data traffic is being generated. This growth makes it necessary for more intelligent processing, operation and optimisation of communication networks.

ML, the vessel that carries AI, is being incorporated into design, planning and optimisation of future communication networks. These new applications enable intelligent communication designs and also address challenges such as signal detection, sparse signal recovery, channel modelling, network optimisation, resource management, routing, transport protocol design and application/user behaviour analysis. In addition to smart network management, ML will allow future communication networks and their applications to exploit Big Data Analytics and thereby enhance overall network operation.

Deployment of 5G networks is also fuelling the need for more intelligent, virtualised networks to maximise the benefits promised by 5G technology.

Democratised technologies pave the way

OpenRAN has paved the way for newer sets of technology providers to offer different ‘parts’ of the RAN on Open and Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) compute platforms. Earlier, the industry was ruled by handful of large telecom OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), who called the shots at the Operator’s network and controlled much of the technology and data. OpenRAN opened the door for a wide variety of smaller, innovative companies. To begin with, newer mobile operators such as Rakuten in Japan, Dish Networks in the US and European Operators like Vodafone (who is also part of TIP) adopted ORAN concepts and opened up their telecom equipment vendor ecosystem to newer and smaller players. Today, you will find that open source technologies have democratised the wireless networking landscape to an extent where even a new player can use open infrastructure to build a disruptive product. This in turn has given rise to a crop of new vendors with a plethora of niche/ customised offerings. Their basket of products and services has created an environment of healthy price competitiveness and quality consciousness that weed out everything but vanguard offerings.

What’s more, the global unbundling and open use of wireless services and infrastructure allows for reduced capital investment and operational outlays. Obviously, this eventually leads to ease of doing business. Users only need to address challenges of maintaining the services they use, rather than handle an entire IT infrastructure monolith. This could lead to newer business models such as cloud-based RAN as a service. It is worth exploring the feasibility of offering active infrastructure such as common antenna, feeder cable, radio access network and transmission systems. When rolled out, this will further incentivise the deployment of common, shareable, passive as well as active infrastructure. Operational cost will come down, as service providers already outsource network maintenance. This again means more vendors joining the current fray and a breaking the monopoly of the mighty.

The OpenRAN initiative aims to increase spectrum efficiency, traffic capacity and throughput by using more intelligence and automation in managing the RAN. This, while simultaneously helping to reduce the total cost of ownership and bring in flexibility, to allow initial deployments in 4G and software upgraded to 5G in future.

Shifting focus

With commercial 5G networks already live in a few global geographies, businesses are digitalising with more mobility, flexibility, reliability, and security – taking with them, IoT and industrial applications to unprecedented levels. In India, 5G is expected to go live in the next couple of years.

With these disruptive new technologies, the adoption of which have been accelerated by the COVID crisis and geopolitical considerations involving the likes of US, India and China, the time has come for newer players to emerge on the scene of telecom technology providers. Globally, there is a realisation of the folly of depending on a single nation. Supply chain logistics, dependence on manpower during a crisis and financial concerns must play a role in determining the topography of the future landscape. It is my opinion that transparency, reliability and building domestic capabilities will be key factors which will shape the future. ‘Look within’ will be the magic mantra of the future.

This is a golden opportunity for start-ups and smaller companies from emerging countries such as India and others to seize the moment, embrace the Open architecture initiatives in the wireless domain and create a newer eco systems of innovative and cost effective solutions for 5G and beyond. Definitely, companies such as Saankhya Labs is well positioned to tap into this opportunity with innovative intellectual properties and ideas and is more than capable of building world-class technology, in India, for the world.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Preetham Uthaiah

EVP - Marketing and Strategy, Saankhya Labs

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