5G OpenRAN (ORAN) technology that enables mobile operators to open the RAN network and use multi-vendor solutions holds huge promise for business growth in Africa. It means network operators can focus capital expenditure (capex) on competitively priced open-standards equipment rather than proprietary gear.

“It enables attractive savings of about 40% on capital expenditure and 30% on operating expenditure (opex),” says Willem Wentzel, head of Wireless at NEC XON.

“It can also be deployed in a matter of two to three days instead of up to nine months. But the realities of Africa mean that 5G ORAN will initially be limited to private corporate networks in industries like mining, manufacturing and industrial where large campuses are common. Public ORAN networks are likely to remain on 4G for the moment, given the level of investment in existing infrastructure and the prohibitive cost of 5G handsets (UE) for consumers.”

Private corporate networks – NEC XON’s thin edge of the wedge

Private 5G ORAN networks will break the ice and help to bring down unit costs for the public market, and Wentzel says NEC XON is currently bringing proof-of-concept kits into Africa for three clients in these industries.

“The ability to privatise 5G ORAN will enable machine-to-machine (M2M), business to business (B2B) and push-to-talk communication on campus, or anywhere in the country (or the world) on a company site using a phone app. To date, most of these campus applications used WiFi simply because it was the only tech feasible to use given that all 4G spectrum has been allocated on a national level to monopolistic MNO players.

“The shortfall with WiFi is industrial-scientific noise which limits the guaranteed throughput and customer experience. As such, it is a ‘best effort’ service,” Wentzel explains. “That creates a lot of latency in the network which means the signal isn’t reliable enough for B2B and M2M services. Due to its reliability in design, 5G ORAN guarantees low latency and enables remote operation of both B2B and M2M processes.”

Wentzel says the mining industry is particularly hungry for low latency networks that enable control of machinery and reduce the risk of human injury  and increase productivity since the technology can work 24×7 whereas a lot of mines can’t currently work at sunset because of safety concerns.

Wentzel says a key hurdle to overcome is scaling the network to the point where it makes economic sense. “Each of these companies wants its own 5G ORAN core on campus. Finding the right operation and business support system (OSS/BSS) is vital to the business case and, with our partners, we are already building cost-effective models. This is especially important in industries like mining where the network coverage need is intricate – a reality that impacts on cost.”

Wentzel  says NEC XON is developing a unique panel which deflects 3.7GHz signals into specific areas where coverage is required – underground, for example.

NEC XON has also invested in network assurance with its acquisition of Aspire – whose solutions can monitor and display the performance of the network, highlight any weak points and optimise network usage on any vendor’s solution. That doesn’t just improve the network itself, but it reduces total cost of ownership by allowing for predictive maintenance, for example.

Wentzel explains that predictive maintenance goes deeper than simple early warnings. The Aspire solution will tell support workers what to look for and what spares to take with them to effect repairs. “This actually plays right into the total cost of ownership point,” says Wentzel. “Currently, you’d need a rigger, an engineer and a labourer to be on site to do repairs. A predictive maintenance solution will often obviate the need for an engineer, and allow a suitably qualified technician to simply replace the part as indicated.”

NEC XON 5G ORAN blueprint

“Of course, each client’s private network will be unique from the features, functions and scalability perspectives,” Wentzel says. “But the good news is that the savings in terms of time and money will make 5G ORAN a worthwhile investment very quickly. The solution can use existing ducting and data centre infrastructure, doesn’t require intervention by a structural engineer to approve and oversee building alterations, or building approval from municipal authorities.

The solution also extends to any industry with a campus environment, and can cover multiple dispersed campuses too. “A bank could have one core instance of the solution deployed, and allow employees in Johannesburg to communicate via the internal network to employees at its Cape Town campus, for example. Much like a PABX, your mobile device becomes your extension,” Wentzel explains. “The difference is that you’re using the internal company network instead of the public GSM network.”