Mobile operators face intense pressure to deliver more data, faster connectivity, better coverage and more functionality to end users who are (unfortunately) more demanding than ever. Increasingly, these end users will not be people as we know them but rather Internet of Things (IoT) devices. IDC has projected that by 2025, 60% of the world’s data will be generated by enterprises, double its level in 2017, largely due to the growth in connected devices, sensors, automation and related equipment.
To address industrial automation, connected cars, smart cities, sensor networks, asset management, connected health and more, operators need to rethink how the connecting network is architected. They must support faster connections, greater density and dramatically reduced latency. And they must add this functionality and flexibility while driving down the costs of deploying, sustaining and managing the network infrastructure.
For decades, the telecom industry has been dominated by proprietary business and operating models, but with market pressures to find innovative ways forward, operators must find a new approach. That means embracing the open-source principles and innovations that took the computer industry at large from supercomputing to smartwatches and wearables and applying them to wireless network infrastructure.
Open source software is proving to be key in 5G and IoT development, powering the automation of the mission-critical functions required to support the high speeds and low latency of 5G and the huge number of endpoints in IoT. Stakeholders have recognized that commoditization and democratization of wireless network infrastructure is necessary to stay relevant.
Several initiatives already are underway to break this proprietary stranglehold and deliver software-defined networking (SDN) into the wireless network. They include the major operators and wireless infrastructure vendors, while disruptive challengers and startups are making an impact, too.
The operator community along with major enterprises are now actively engaged in collaborative alliances to help drive uptake of open source.
The O-RAN Alliance includes members such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, Verizon and SK Telecom, and embraces open interfaces and intelligent technologies for the radio access networks (RAN) needed for next-generation mobile applications like augmented reality, IoT, connected cars, smart homes and more.
The Open vRAN initiative is backed by Cisco and is primarily focused on specifications to enable “unbundling the components of the network into smaller, simpler components and virtualizing capability to reduce cost and increase agility.”
The Telecom Infrastructure Project’s OpenRAN Group, created in 2016 by Facebook, Intel, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom, is focusing on more simplified and efficient radio access network technologies based on vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined approaches.
A key component and enabler of a programmable base station is providing for a software-defined radio, which can revolutionize the traditional RAN landscape and make it easier for operators to roll out tailored services to different customer segments, at a reduced cost, by using software rather than hardware to process radio signals.
To that end, the MyriadRF open source initiative was founded by Lime Micro in 2012 with the goal of democratizing wireless innovation. It has grown to include contributors ranging from hobbyists and wireless enthusiasts to professional engineers and equipment manufacturers. As of late 2018, more than 8,000 high performance LimeSDR software-defined radio boards had been shipped to developers, with more than 4,000 commits made across 70 GitHub repositories.
LimeNet’s CrowdCell network-in-a-box platform, which significantly lowers the barrier to entry for software-defined radio development, is opening up a portfolio of new use cases for operators and enables them to go much further than being just a connectivity provider. Furthermore, it has the added benefit of access to a developer community which is constantly creating new applications and modifying and testing existing ones for increased use case fit.
For example, Vodafone in the UK wanted to extend coverage and add additional services to the network it offers to customers and use this as a means to generate new revenue. By using CrowdCell, Vodafone is able to localize communication to a greater extent and reduce reliance on major cloud service providers–meaning Vodafone gets greater reliability and security at a lower cost.
They also have the opportunity to develop cloud-hosting revenues and additional services, from which new revenue can enable 5G development and deployment. All this is underpinned by safe access to the app development community that ensures continuous innovation.
The future of mobile connectivity is software-defined. The software-defined approach and third-party app development will ensure that operators are no longer differentiated solely by coverage or subscription costs but by the value-added services they are able to offer.