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Making RIC Innovation a Reality in Multi-Vendor 5G Networks: Diving into the Vodafone RIC Trial

As open radio access networks (O-RAN) sweep the telecommunications industry, we’re on the cusp of some amazing transformation. By opening up a part of the network that’s long been closed and proprietary, operators can bring a world of new vendors and capabilities to mobile networks. And one of the key innovations to enable this is the RAN intelligent controller (RIC).

Defined in the O-RAN Alliance reference architecture, RIC changes the game for radio networks by providing a platform to run third-party software and inject new capabilities into the RAN. Think of it almost like an App Store for radio networks, with the ability to run applications from a variety of vendors to automate, optimize, and monetize the RAN in new ways. If you’ve been following the service provider RAN space for a while, this can all sound like science fiction. But it’s happening right now. And some of the most innovative companies in tech—VMware, Vodafone, Cohere Technologies, Capgemini, Polte, Airhop—are making it happen.

VMware is pioneering two industry-first RIC platforms: a Centralized RIC for running non-real-time (non-RT) RAN applications, or rApps, and a Distributed RIC for running latency-sensitive near-real-time (near-RT) applications, or xApps. Vodafone recently completed a proof-of-concept, proving not only that the concept behind RIC can work in a real-world multi-vendor network, but can deliver significant benefits. Vodafone used a new xApp from Cohere Technologies, the Spectrum Multiplier, running on the VMware Distributed RIC connected to a Capgemini 5G RAN, to enable a more efficient use of spectrum through a novel Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) scheduler. The results: Vodafone was able to double 5G spectral efficiency—effectively doubling cell site capacity—using Cohere’s xApp intelligence.

It’s an amazing story. And if you want to know how it all came together, LightReading recently hosted experts from all the companies involved for a webinar to talk details.

In this first of a two-part blog series, we’ll review the highlights of the webinar. In Part 2, we’ll cover the technical and strategic questions raised by attendees in the webinar’s Q&A, and hear how all six companies see the future of RIC and O-RAN unfolding in the coming years.  

Blazing a Trail in RAN Innovation

Gabriel Brown, Heavy Readings’ principal analyst for Mobile Networks, kicked off the webinar by acknowledging the huge diversity of O-RAN activity happening right now around the globe. He noted that RIC in particular looks to be a key innovation to democratize radio resource management (RRM) in mobile networks. Carlos Ubeda, who heads radio software development at Vodafone, then took the reins to dive into the details of the trial.

“We believe RIC is a fundamental piece to enable open frameworks to improve cost-effectiveness and expand the supply chain of radio networks,” said Ubeda. “This will definitely challenge the status quo of legacy suppliers. On the other hand, open APIs will facilitate the integration of third-party applications, which will allow new and groundbreaking use cases.”

Before these innovations can spread industrywide, however, more operators need to adopt the RIC, and the standardized open interfaces it depends on, as the default way of implementing RRM capabilities. By validating the world’s first RIC-based MU-MIMO deployment—a 5G radio innovation that legacy suppliers don’t currently support—Vodafone has achieved a major milestone in that effort.

“We’re proving that RIC is already capable of running complex features like MU-MIMO,” said Ubeda. “We can already benefit from this today by deploying this use case as an xApp in the VMware RIC, and make this a differentiator for Vodafone.”.”

A Platform for Multi-Vendor Innovation

As the supplier of the RIC platform, VMware played a central role in enabling the successful demonstration. Ben Basler, VMware’s Senior Director of Product Management – Service Provider and Edge, went in-depth on VMware’s vision.

VMware views the RIC as a critical enabler in operators’ ability to tap into multi-vendor innovation—and to truly benefit from Open RAN. Basler explained how the RIC provides an abstraction layer between the infrastructure and all the various vendors and third-party software developers participating in an O-RAN implementation, with a set of normalized APIs to support multiple use cases. It’s this ability to abstract away multi-vendor complexity that really accelerates the pace of RAN innovation.   

“Differentiating your network services and value-add capabilities is very important to operators,” said Basler. “Having this abstraction layer that the non-RT and near-RT RIC provides to RAN vendors will ultimately provide much more choice. We have a vision of providing any application, on any cloud, for any sort of RAN.”

Basler went on to detail VMware’s RIC strategy—specifically, how VMware is using the RIC to expose deep RAN functionality, including very time-sensitive actions, to third-party software. He also described some of the steps VMware is taking to seed a vibrant multi-vendor ecosystem of xApps and rApps, and to make it easy for third-party software developers to write them.

“We really want to create a great developer experience, said Basler. “The SDKs that VMware makes available for the Centralized RIC and the Distributed RIC make it simple for third parties, for operators themselves, or any other vendors to come in and develop on top of our RIC platforms.”

Pushing the Boundaries of Radio Networks

Next up, Ravikanth Pasumarthy, Chief Architect and Vice President of Technology for Capgemini Engineering, talked about the role Capgemini played in Vodafone’s O-RAN demonstration, providing the 5G RAN and related software. Pasumarthy detailed Capgemini’s gNodeB  O-RAN architecture, with a focus on the 3GPP-compliant distributed unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU) framework. He walked through a deep dive into Capgemini’s technology, showing how the combination of its scalability and support for standardized O-RAN interfaces enables it to support multiple O-RAN use cases and deployment models.

Then, Prem Gopannan, Vice President of Product Architecture and Software Engineering for Cohere, stepped up to describe the technology behind his company’s innovative O-RAN application. Integrated within a DU, or as in this case, running as an xApp in VMware’s near-RT RIC, Cohere software acts as a spectrum multiplier. Using delayed Doppler-based channel detection, estimation, and prediction, the solution can enable MU-MIMO scheduling in real-world RANs—and radically improve the efficiency of both 5G and 4G wireless systems.

“This is an industry first,” says Gopannan. “The scheduler has always been considered too latency-sensitive to move outside the DU, particularly to the cloud. Because of our ability to look into the future, as well as our current capabilities, we can host it in the near-RT RIC as an xApp. And the end result, as we showed with this demonstration, is doubling 5G capacity.”

Pushing the Boundaries of What’s Possible in the RAN

Vodafone’s O-RAN demonstration is incredibly exciting, but it’s far from the only RIC innovation happening today. Towards the end of the webinar, Lightreading also invited representatives from two other companies looking to use VMware’s RIC platform to enable new capabilities and RAN use cases:

  • Polte unlocks 5G Precise Positioning: Russ Markhovsky, President and Founder of Polte, described how his company leverages the VMware RIC platform and SDK to enable 5G Precise Positioning for ORAN. This secure, accurate, global location capability will equip a variety of new xApps to draw improved location intelligence from sub-meter positioning for asset tracking, public safety, next-generation warehouses, and many more use cases.
  • AirHop Communications optimizes radio network operations: Joe Thome, Vice President of Business Operations and Marketing for AirHop, shared how his company is using VMware Centralized RIC and Distributed RIC platforms to bring a wide range of automation and optimization use cases to operators managing O-RAN architectures. AirHop is developing xApps and rApps to address configuration management, interference mitigation, coverage and capacity optimization, and much more.

Find Out More

At the end of the webinar, engineers from all six companies fielded a range of questions from attendees covering specifics from the Vodafone deployment, details about the RIC platform and O-RAN architectures, and the implications of spectrum multiplier technology on 5G rollouts industrywide. In Part 2 of this blog series, we dove into the responses that all six companies had to these questions.

In the meantime, watch the full webinar now.


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