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There were nearly four dozen demonstrations of Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) implementations at MWC Barcelona 2022, about half of them live onsite. These demonstrations strongly suggest that O-RAN equipment is moving from the conceptual stage to successful implementation and deployment.
After cancellations and delays the previous year due to COVID-19 restrictions, Barcelona’s big party known as Mobile World Congress (MWC) was a live event this year. Buried among the shiny new smartphones and other personal wireless gadgets on display were the latest infrastructure advancements that will help wireless carriers deliver on the promise of 5G.
RANs (Radio Access Networks) are the key network components that carry RF signals between ether and copper and fiber optic cables that carry audio, video, and data streams to telecommunications data centers to that they can be transported to their destination.
These data streams support a myriad of applications beyond the obvious audio and video calls and include cloud gaming, teleconferencing, and the looming Metaverse. Radio standards that define the multiplicity of 5G RF bands and access protocols complicate RAN design, prompting the wireless industry to develop open standards to help eliminate some of the implementation difficulties while improving the performance and reducing the cost of RAN implementations. .
The O-RAN (Open RAN) Alliance, founded in 2018 by an international group of operators including AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, NTT DOCOMO and Orange, is the organization working to define global labor standards for RAN. This year’s MWC Barcelona provided insight into the progress of this work.
In the four years since its inception, the O-RAN Alliance has grown to over 300 members, including well-known carriers such as Dish Network, KDDI, Rakuten Mobile, Telefonica, Verizon and Vodafone. Beyond mobile operators, the membership list includes hardware and software vendors such as Intel, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Xilinx; research organizations; and academic institutions.
The organization staged 22 demos of O-RAN implementations based on the organization’s standards at MWC Barcelona 2022, with an additional 24 demos viewable online in the organization’s virtual exhibit hall. These demonstrations strongly suggest that O-RAN equipment is moving from the conceptual stage to successful implementation and deployment.
For the 4G and 4G LTE generations, RANs were tightly coupled, systems that combined the radio unit (RU) and baseband unit (BBU) into a single proprietary unit. To achieve the O-RAN Alliance goals for 5G RANs (open, intelligent, virtualized and fully interoperable), the Alliance’s O-RAN standards define a decoupled system that separates RUs from BBUs and divides the BBU into a DU (distributed unit) and a UC (centralized unit). The O-RAN Alliance DU handles real-time and scheduling functions while the CU handles non-real-time functions. Therefore, a CU can usually be implemented with a processor-based design, while a DU requires more performance than a CPU can provide.
A demonstration of the O-RAN Alliance at MWC Barcelona 2022 that illustrated a complete and working O-RAN implementation, from Wistron NeWeb Corp. (WNC), was an end-to-end (E2E) 5G O-RAN system. This system streams 4K video over a sub-6 GHz 5G RF connection to a client laptop at 945 Mbps. WNC’s O-RAN E2E (end-to-end) demonstration includes CPE (customer-premises equipment), O-RU (open radio unit), O-DU (open distributed unit), and O-CU (open centralized unit) designs ) developed in-house by WNC. Because they are real-time units, WNC based their O-RU and O-DU designs on programmable logic. In particular, the O-DU is based on the recently announced Intel N6000 acceleration development platform, formerly called Arrow Creek.
In this demo, WNC’s O-CUs and O-DUs are connected to a COTS server based on an Intel Xeon-D (Ice Lake-D) processor. O-CUs and O-DUs support the O-RAN Alliance O1 interface for configuration, performance, and fault management services as defined by the Service Management and Orchestration Architecture. services (SMO) of O-RAN 5G. The SMO specification provides the automated control and orchestration needed to automate 5G carrier networks. According to WNC, this system has already been deployed in a private 5G network owned by a major telecom operator in Taiwan, and WNC says it is ready for use by a commercial operator.
You can see a short 4-minute video of WNC E2E 5G demonstration on the WNC page in the O-RAN Alliance virtual exhibition hall.
— Steve Leibson is a Principal Analyst at Tirias Research