African Tech Voices: Reimagining network economics with Open RAN-led automation
With growing data consumption but falling rates, network economics is one of the key challenges faced by Mobile Network Operators(MNOs) in all geographies, including Africa.
For most MNOs, the revenue is not growing at the rate of data growth. This means that while the MNOs have to constantly invest in upgrading networks to meet user expectations, the return on investment is not in proportion to the investment.
According to industry estimates, telcos spend an average of five dollars on managing a network for every dollar spent on purchasing the gear. This is threatening the traditional network architecture model, making it imperative for the telcos to rethink the way networks are deployed and managed.
Further, the MNOs are also struggling to ensure innovation, which is critical now to add new revenue streams. MNOs no longer want to be limited by just offering basic connectivity services. There is a need to innovate to explore new revenue opportunities to gain and maintain a competitive edge. However, they need an agile and flexible infrastructure to build a culture of innovation. As of now, the CSPs are limited by their legacy hardware-centric infrastructure, which makes it tough to launch new services. Further, the traditional networks are not interoperable and thus not conducive to innovation.
Besides, the growing dependence on digital infrastructure means that the MNOs are under intense pressure to provide a best-in-class end-user experience at all times to both enterprise and end-users.
Rethinking the RAN Dynamics
A key to addressing these challenges is to rethink the traditional way of deploying and managing networks. One of the biggest cost factors for MNOs is the Radio Access Network (RAN) component, which constitutes almost 60% of the overall capital and operational expenditure for the MNOs in setting up and managing the networks. So, it is then crucial for MNOs to transform the way RAN is deployed to bring down the CAPEX and OPEX.
Further, the traditional RAN equipment is hardware-based, preventing MNOs from quickly launching new services to gain a business edge. Addressing the RAN issue is also critical because traditional legacy systems are rigid and don’t encourage innovation. The MNOs then need a network strategy that not only allows them to bring down time-to-market but is also elastic and enables them to scale up and down as per the consumption. It should also bring down CAPEX and OPEX by using software and ensuring optimum utilization of available resources.
The Open RAN approach is helping telcos across the world in addressing these challenges. Automation is a key part of how it supports telcos in their journey to bring down their expense. Automated orchestration and management are also key for telcos to benefit from a cloud-native Open RAN solution.
The four key stages of network automation
Automation with modern tools and technologies provides several benefits at different stages of network deployment, from preparation to the rollout of a new network or service to monitoring and management of the network after rollout. Further, it also is key to scaling up or down of network as per the changing requirements.
There are four stages of network automation: setting up the network environment, bringing up a site, testing and upgrading and optimization. Cloud automation is the key in the first stage of setting up the network environment. It uses a software-defined approach to automate the management and operation of the infrastructure for greater efficiencies. It brings down time and effort to build the network, improves resource utilisation and reduces administrative costs.
Zero Touch Provisioning (ZTP) is used in the second stage to automate the provisioning of a service without requiring any manual intervention. This helps bring down network complexity and improve operational efficiency by significantly bringing down errors. In addition, since it doesn’t require any site visit, it is easy to deploy a large number of sites quickly with ZTP.
Open RAN-based approach then uses Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) to automate the process of bug fixes and software upgrades or downgrades. Typically, it is time-consuming and expensive for the telcos to send people to the site for software upgrades and testing. With automation, this tedious task can be completed within minutes leading to a significant reduction in costs and time.
The last and final stage of automation is optimisation to enhance the end-user experience. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) powered intelligent management and operations of the network is key to delivering a best-in-class user experience. AI-enabled self-learning and self-decision-making tools automate the entire management and processes of the network to enable service providers to ensure a world-class user experience.
As the African telcos expand existing networks of 2G, 3G and 4G and start building 5G networks, the time is right for them to leverage automation for greater operational efficiencies so they are able to bring down costs even as they provide an improved experience to the end-user. Open RAN based automation is emerging as the most suitable option for the telcos to transform the network economics in their favour while ensuring vendor diversity and preparing the networks to be agile and elastic to encourage innovation.