Not connected to the internet is about 47% of the global population. Around 3.6 billion people cannot communicate and access information like the rest of us does, because of lack of coverage or means to pay for connectivity.
Make no mistake, though: the digital divide is everybody’s problem. If a GDP growth by 0.6-2,8% after a 10 percentage point increase in mobile broadband penetration is not convincing enough, think geopolitics.
What US president Joe Biden discussed over the last couple weeks is all about broadband: which country will bring online the billions who are offline, mostly in developing countries and in rural or remote areas, with some lacking even basic 2G phone connectivity?
India has a 683 million unconnected, China 580, Pakistan 140, Bangladesh 97, Indonesia 96, Ethiopia 92… One gets the picture.
Is it going to be China or the Western countries? With 5G being rolled-out in North America, Europe and important markets in Asia, now the discussion is honing in on the technical feasibility and financial case for telecom hardware vendors to tackle the Herculean job that Huawei and other Chinese vendors undertook with their government’s support a few years ago.
While developed countries can by and large afford single proprietary telecom network infrastructure, like that offered by prime vendors Nokia and Ericsson, developing countries more often than not cannot, and this was one of the main reasons why Chinese vendors like Huawei were reaping such a success in Africa and parts of Asia—where there is no business case, no Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), for carriers to deploy traditional networks and provide affordable coverage. The financial resources needed to set up the networks infrastructure are likely a main cause for the digital divide.
A technological way to tackle this in the very markets where the less expensive Chinese vendors compete has successfully been coming along.
Disaggregating and virtualizing the Radio Access Networks (RAN) opens up the infrastructure deployment to a broader range of telecom hardware suppliers. By allowing operators to build a network with an open architecture composed of interoperable elements, without the need to commit to just one vendor, Open RAN is said to create more competition and opportunities for innovation in the space, and to reduce the cost of operating the RAN.
Telefonica and Vodafone have been very vocal over the last few years promoting the O-RAN Alliance, which accounts now for a membership of 26 carriers and over 190 equipment vendors, (Ericsson and Nokia both are members), start-ups and research institutions (artificial intelligence, AI, plays an important role).
Research and data center equipment vendors are essential because of the very nature of Open RAN networks with an impact on their deployment: Open RAN are virtualized networks, i.e. networks that function primarily on software rather than on locked-in proprietary software and hardware technology. Technically, 5G it is the most virtualized wireless generation. That the evolution of Open RAN would happen with 5G could thus be expected.
Michael Clegg, VP and General Manager for 5G, Embedded and IoT at Supermicro, a global provider of high performance and high-efficiency end-to-end green computing solutions for the data center, the cloud and HPC, summed it up as follows in a recent debate on Open RAN sponsored by GSMA Intelligence: “One thing that is interesting about 5G is that for the first time it is architecturally a cloud-native network, and what this really means is that the telecom industry is using the same technology that is used in traditional data centers and by big hyperscale cloud providers. This is actually very good to counter the rural divide, because it means that we are moving away from specialized proprietary hardware skills—those that have typically been provided by a telecom vendor—into using an industry-standard service, where you have a much broader set available to operate and provision that equipment. And this is not only happening in the cloud, but also on the edge where you have a full range of Open RAN solutions.”
In the same debate, Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence at GSMA, the organization representing mobile operators and the broader mobile ecosystem worldwide, explained that they are seeing “a lot of operators adopting Open RAN 5G in emerging markets, as well as in mature markets. The argument comes down to cost, whether OpEx or CapEx, because these networks are cheaper to deploy and to run. Many carriers in emerging markets are understanding that they do not necessarily need the most perfect solution at this time, and that Open RAN makes a good balance.”
Furthermore, Open RAN infrastructure requires also a lower cost to match service requirements and spectrum efficiency, among other requirements.
Amrit Heer is Director of Sales Europe at Parallel Wireless, the Open RAN company delivering the world’s only 2G 3G 4G 5G O-RAN-compliant Open RAN solution for rural and urban connectivity, and operating in 16 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
“If you look at the deployments we have across six continents, you can see that some major telcos have deployed Open RAN solutions. The opportunity began 6 years ago with Vodafone and Telefonica. ARPU was not increasing, and there were coverage issues that needed to be resolved, so both carriers were looking for new ways to deploy networks around the world. We saw the opportunities of approaching the challenge with Open RAN Technology. Our first deployment was 6 years ago.
In the context of developing countries, Heer highlights an Etisalat turn-key deployment in Afghanistan, a key one for the company. “It was a difficult deployment, because we did it during Covid times, and in a urban setting needing to cover a significant number of mobile users per sector.”
“Very important was that we deployed our Open RAN network seamlessly to the existing vendors, with the integration to the core done in a matter of days rather than months. We did that very smoothly and quickly, using third generation Intel for the processing power and the ability to handle the technology we deployed there.”
A cloud-native deployment with Parallel Wireless software across all of the disaggregated RAN, it used a number of technologies, from 2G to 4G, and a Parallel Wireless core network, which Etisalat Afghanistan will be able to scale thanks to the ability to hardware decouple.
“My job is not easy,” Mohamed Alarzooqi Vice President Mobile Networks Etisalat Group, said. “It consists in looking for opportunities to deploy networks in locations hat are very different as are their conditions and requirements. It is very difficult to find a solution that fits all.”
“Afghanistan is a very tough place to operate, Saudi Arabia is very competitive, the UAE has the fastest networks. We operate also in Pakistan where spectrum has many limitations, and in Egypt, where the traffic is very high and ARPU very low,” Alarzooqi expanded.
“In 2019 Etisalat we came up about the initiative to float Open RAN to all our operators. The results exceeded our expectations, and Open RAN was adopted by all of them. It reduces costs, increases efficiencies and can solve the problem of having a limited number of traditional telecom providers,” Alarzooqi said, before using as an example for their economic case the Chinese platform WeChat. “WeChat has the function of a business platform. A recent report recognizes it as accounting for 7% of the total economic return outside China’s 20 main cities. It is huge, and everybody can use it because of the ability of the network to provide connectivity in rural areas. The same could be done in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. It is about connectivity, and the main reason connectivity lacks in so many areas is because of the cost of it.”
Even if 5G is expensive, with Open RAN fully virtualized and automated solutions, which require a minimum integration, 5G connectivity can be provided benefitting operators and end consumers and enhancing the services offered, if the cost for its deployment is lower.
“All of this is absolutely real”, Clegg said. “We only have to look at the recent Covid times to see the critical importance that broadband had enabling pretty much the economy to function. Many of us in established markets and developed areas had the privilege to be able to use broadband. It is, however the rural areas that need broadband and high-speed broadband the most. To deliver this we have to have advanced viable communications, but the traditional method of delivering this has been expensive and required particular skills sets.”
5G as a cloud-native network and the adoption of Open RAN will actually enable these new markets that traditionally lag 7-years behind the mature markets.
It was five years ago that we witnessed a lot of Open RAN ideas come to life with Facebook’s goal of “connecting the world, whether a small village or a large metropolitan area,” Jarich recalls. “They put their money where their mouth was, and we have seen a number of pilots.” The idea is that there is a lot we can do by lowering the costs, like with Open RAN. The push is extending “to the whole world, with a big role for emerging markets.”
The TIP case in Indonesia: In February, Parallel Wireless announced that it was the first Open RAN software vendor to power initiatives at the Telecom Infra Project‘s (TIP) newly launched Community Lab in Indonesia.
Because mobile phones are the main tool used to access the internet in Indonesia, mobile phone penetration has surged from 20 percent in 2005 to over 80 percent today. Subscriber demand for data is increasing exponentially, but the ability for customers to pay for this increased consumption is limited. The pressure for regional mobile network operators (MNO) to lower cost per GB is stronger than ever.
In line with the Indonesian government’s goal to become one of the most digitally advanced countries in Southeast Asia, TIP’s Community Lab will help Indonesian mobile operators test and use Open RAN-based technology as leverage to their business as they continue to support their diversified customer base across 4G today and 5G tomorrow. This Community Lab supports a new ecosystem for Open RAN deployments with: leading test and validation for Open RAN deployments, engineering resources from Telkom University, support from the Indonesian Ministry of Communication supporting this effort as a means to connect more people with OpenRAN, the testing of the Parallel Wireless Open RAN solution in the lab, with the plan to have four regional mobile operators (Telkomsel, Indosat Ooredoo, XL Axiata and Smartfren) roll it out in live networks to deliver coverage at a much lower cost. AMDOCS is providing system integration expertise.