By Willem Wentzel | Head of Wireless at NEC XON
5G is causing a step change in Africa’s mobile networks. Operators are grappling with how to respond. Get in early? There may be expensive lessons you’ll teach your competitors at no cost to them. On the flipside, you may miss the market opportunity. But service providers have a lot more options today to roll out 5G. Exploring these can shed light on when the best time may be.
The Open RAN (ORAN) initiative has gained serious ground in the past year. It has gained support from a slew of international vendors, including NEC. It’s also benefited from the ground-breaking Rakuten deployment.
5G ORAN perfect for African conditions, overcomes key developing market challenges
The five major factors driving ORAN adoption
Moore’s Law continues to benefit network virtualisation. According to the law, processor speeds will double roughly every 18 months. The upshot is that there are no longer packet routing chokepoints in the virtual fabric. Speed was a traditional shortcoming, but virtual networks are now faster than before with ever more proven deployments.
Radio access kit is one of the biggest expenses in wireless networks. But analysts and Rakuten’s experiences suggest ORAN can save you 40% capex and 30% opex over proprietary deployments. Those savings can immediately benefit large network incumbents or agile new market entrants to deliver top tier services and performance.
The O-RAN Alliance has enabled vendors to use a common split option and standard interface specification platform. It makes integration easier and less complex. It has enabled multi-vendor support on commercial networks as far back as 2020.
From our partner NEC’s blog: “NEC contributed to the success of what is believed to be the world’s first carrier aggregation using 5G frequency bands in a multivendor Open RAN compliant radio access network (RAN) in September 2020.”
It demonstrated how carriers can expand their vendor ecosystem to deploy best of breed RAN architectures. It also demonstrates how we can realistically do phased network extensions and phased 5G integration.
Vendors are creating new, high performance, low energy chips specifically for centralised (CU) and distributed (DU) ORAN radio equipment. Less power and smaller size reduce capex and opex. This is particularly important in Africa’s characteristic wide areas. Much of Africa’s mobile network energy is either hybrid or off grid, which can be expensive.
NEC is one of the members of the Open RAN Policy Coalition. The coalition strives to achieve many goals and sustain several principles. Among them, it seeks to remove 5G deployment barriers, fund research and development, support vendor diversity through government procurement, and avoid heavy-handed or prescriptive solutions.
ORAN – meeting Africa’s particular challenges
Several ORAN trials around the world demonstrate how 4G and 5G ORAN overcome scale and performance issues. In Africa we are working with customers to deal with applying ORAN to specific local challenges. Primary goals include enabling network migration, evolution, penetration, coverage, and new services that help them gradually progress toward 5G. Crucially, we help monetise the journey. This starkly contrasts the traditional capex hit of proprietary solutions. Ultimately, you will have the ability to use equipment from multiple vendors in a single geographic region without suffering from the usual performance overheads.
That means you can gradually introduce 5G elements into the densest and most populous geographies in your networks. As you do so, you can shift the existing, older generation equipment further out.
This approach radically reduces the investment necessary to expand your network. It implies you can improve services and customer experiences progressively, across the board. It’s one of the most sensible innovations to come to the networks in the recent past and you can see why it’s so popular.
If you’re considering a 5G investment and are struggling to understand the complexities of migrating from proprietary technology, our global team is at your disposal to run a discovery workshop for you. Please reach and I’ll happily set it up for you.