If 2023 was marked by the achievement of performance parity or better between Open RAN and traditional networks, then 2024 promises to be the year of automation.
In August this year Vodafone began to accelerate the installation of Open RAN equipment for 2,500 sites in the UK. This was after the company confirmed that the performance of Open RAN exceeded that of the legacy equipment in most of its test areas.
Automated Customer Benefits
Now Vodafone is turning its sights to towards an autonomous future. In traditional networks, the radio resource management and optimisation are dominated by a few vendors, limiting innovation and competitiveness. In Open RAN, Vodafone can work with a wide range of suppliers with the aim of kicking off 2024 with results showing the benefits of enhanced automation to customers and operators as RAN delivery is reduced to minutes.
By working with vendors like Amdocs, Atrinet, Dell Technologies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), IBM, Juniper, Qualcomm, Samsung, VMware and Wind River on industry-leading trials, Vodafone aims to replace many of today’s time-consuming manual processes with zero touch operations. This will make it faster and cheaper to drop in new software upgrades and install new 5G features for customers.
One such feature is E2E Distributed Zero Touch Deployment which Vodafone hopes will bring new sites and services online, for example network slicing within a few minutes (a 75% improvement in time over today). This would allow Vodafone engineers at one of its network management centres to quicky provide a dedicated slice of 5G to emergency services or ramp up capacity around a sports stadium on match day.
Also, thanks to intelligent algorithms, an automatically optimised network means a reduction in energy consumption and a network that can increase and decrease capacity based on usage. So if the network notices less people are using it at night, it will lower its power. It also means better spectrum management that minimises signal interference, which results in better coverage for the customers.
SMO – pulling the strings
At the heart of this technological gain is the Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) platform. Developed by industry body the O-RAN ALLIANCE, it incorporates intelligent automation to simplify the deployment, and maintenance of many network sites pieced together with multiple vendor equipment.
Later this year, Vodafone will begin testing SMO capabilities across Europe, including in Germany, Italy and the UK. This is part of wider movement which will see a fully functional SMO pulling the imaginary strings of thousands of 5G mobiles sites to control and unify lifecycle management of their hardware and software, as well as monitoring and analytics.
With Open RAN, unlike traditional networks, Vodafone can access an application programming interface (API) that allows software to talk to each other using part of the SMO architecture called the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC). It controls and optimises the radio access network functions – the final link between the network and customer devices, machines, and vehicles – supporting both near real-time (Near-RT RIC) edge computing applications requiring response times of under 10 milliseconds, and less urgent functions using non-RT RIC.
Ready by early 2024
Combined, these will spur the creation of a wide multi-vendor ecosystem of applications which will enable new operational and usage opportunities, plus AI and ML capabilities, that are key to enabling an autonomous network. Vodafone is pushing to prepare the SMO for commercial readiness by early 2024 and is currently working on several proof of concepts with different vendors to evaluate the current RIC maturity and to work on future improvements.
The trials, involving the vendors mentioned previously, are based on four key areas; end-to-end zero touch deployment, multi-layer operations, automated O-Cloud Operations and RIC based energy saving.
It’s not inconceivable that with advances in open interfaces and automation, businesses and consumers will be able to order network services on-demand from Vodafone with just one-click.
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