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Network virtualization is one of the hottest topics in telecoms, but particularly when it comes to the access network, it often seems technically complex, risky and downright undeployable.
Yet virtualized RAN is not all about futuristic architectures requiring miles of fiber. In the small cell environment, it is deployable today, and can revolutionize the economics of rolling out large numbers of cells, in certain dense urban or indoor enterprise locations.
Small Cell Forum’s latest Release is designed to dispel some of the myths about virtualization and provide the guidelines, tools and case studies to help operators and enterprises make clear decisions now. Its documents cover all aspects of those decisions from technical interfaces and architectures to commercial implications and use cases.
This is highly significant for the industry, at the point where operators are planning to densify their networks in the near term, to meet rising capacity needs. Once large numbers of cells are needed in a relatively small area, there are many benefits to virtualization, which runs most of the functions of the network as software on central controllers which can be shared by multiple cells.
This reduces operating costs because resources can be shared and allocated flexibly, according to changing traffic patterns, and the network can be more easily reconfigured and upgraded, because so much is being done in software.
The more densification, including improved indoor coverage, rises up the operators’ priority lists, the more the case for virtualized small cells will be made. In order to give them the confidence to make the leap, a clear working guide, detailing technical and commercial best practice, will be essential.
This is what Release 8 provides, drawing on the experience of a wide range of Small Cell Forum members. Early adopters have contributed unique insights from their real world roll-outs of virtualized small cells, and the wider group has provided important directions on operator requirements from this technology.
Central to Release 8 is an open interface specification which splits the small cell in to its physical and virtual components. Called nFAPI (network functional application platform interface), this is vital to the economics of the new approach for two reasons. It allows equipment from different vendors to be mixed and matched; and it supports fronthaul (the connections between the cells and the controller) over Ethernet, which is readily available and simple to deploy.
There are many other documents surrounding this, addressing the information needs of everyone involved in decisions about small cells and virtualization, from engineers to marketing departments to senior executives. The net result is a blueprint for deploying virtualized small cells in a unified, efficient way which can deliver measurable business benefits in a short period of time. This will be an important catalyst for the next wave of small cell roll-outs, and the densification programs which are just starting to get under way.
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