The results of the 2023 NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) 5G Challenge are in! We are excited for the progress that has been made toward achieving the goal of multi-vendor interoperability of Open RAN architecture. As the host lab for the challenge and the first Open Testing and Integration Centre (OTIC), CableLabs, in partnership with Kyrio, welcomed eight vendors to participate in ‘cold’ integration (i.e. no history of previous integration) of their subsystems to demonstrate various types of data sessions across a multi-vendor Open RAN architecture in our neutral system test facility.
The goal of this year’s challenge was to demonstrate that plug-and-play is possible and to create an environment for co-operation between newly paired Open RAN partners. In a world where mobile network suppliers dominate the market with a proprietary integrated RAN solution, the flexibility and efficiencies offered by multi-vendor, Open RAN solutions are of keen interest to operators. True plug-and-play functionality has the potential to transform the industry, but it will only become a reality when traditional methods and processes are challenged and improved.
As we move toward this vision, Open RAN architecture as specified by the O-RAN Alliance can be a disrupter with the potential to change the way wireless networks are designed, tested and operated. Here is a quick peek at how CableLabs and Kyrio are working toward this goal.
What Were the Goals of the Challenge?
The 5G Challenge, launched in 2022 as a collaboration between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Institute for Telecommunications Sciences (NTIA-ITS) and the Department of Defense (DoD), aimed to accelerate progress in the collaboration and diversity of the Open RAN ecosystem. This year, teams were asked to demonstrate multi-vendor interoperability across radio units (RUs), combined central units (CUs) and distributed units (DUs).
The 2023 5G Challenge expanded on the successes of the 2022 5G Challenge and introduced complexity in performance (e.g., loading, stress, stability) and mobility to understand the maturity of the Open RAN ecosystem and to stretch its capabilities. Results were extremely positive, with successful demonstrations of multi-vendor end-to-end interoperability across an Open RAN system and the establishment of data sessions using various protocols with four pairs of Open RAN systems (across seven different vendors). In addition, two pairs of multi-vendor Open RAN systems demonstrated mobile handover (Xn and NG) between the two different Open RAN gNBs, known to be the industry’s first such demonstration.
Details of the 2023 5G Challenge, including information, test plans, and host lab environment details, are available on the 5G Challenge Resources page. Kyrio was proud to be part of the host lab to successfully integrate multiple Open RAN vendor devices and demonstrate mobility between newly integrated multi-vendor Open RAN systems for the first time.
2023 5G Challenge Takeaways: What We Learned
As we reflect on the successes of the 5G Challenge, what did we learn and how can this challenge make a positive contribution to the Open RAN Ecosystem?
Progress toward interoperability will depend on collaboration, skill, and testing support.
The success of this testing challenge relied on several key factors, including cooperation among the vendors, a highly skilled team of engineers, and essential support from test tool vendors like Viavi and Keysight. Persistence and technical expertise were critical. We proved that Open RAN subsystems from different vendors can be integrated and can successfully perform to industry-based standards, and we demonstrated mobility within a limited time frame.
There are still issues that need to be addressed before deploying multi-vendor systems.
Open RAN is a fresh approach to RAN architecture that gives mobile operators flexibility in design, deployment, and performance of their networks. However, this flexibility also brings complexity. Open RAN has been gaining ground among operators, but there are some significant concerns to address before deploying multi-vendor systems. According to the 2023 Open RAN Operator Survey by Heavy Readings in April 2023, the major concerns are related to system security (23%) and vendor interoperability and performance (29%). Key technical challenges we encountered in the 5G challenge include:
- Variability in interpreting standards.
- Variability in implementation.
- Availability of counters and adequate log collection.
New skills will be needed to test and integrate multi-vendor RAN systems.
The new process for testing and integration involves techniques that did not necessarily have significance when working on a single vendor RAN. For instance, it is no longer adequate that the test and integration team are familiar with standards, can operate test tools, and can run prepared scripts. In the new world of multi-vendor RAN systems, testing providers will need to foster cooperation between vendors that may be competitors and have an adequate knowledge of software principles to help resolve technical issues.
One of the most important takeaways from the 5G Challenge is that while we are making good progress toward interoperability, there is still work to be done. The Kyrio OTIC lab team has gained critical experience from hosting the 2022 and 2023 5G Challenges, and we look forward to continuing our support of the Open RAN ecosystem.
Learn more about the challenge and this year’s winners here: 2023 5G Challenge Event Closes Chapter on Open RAN Competition