The RAN World event, held in Rome in early October, highlighted a number of important themes and ideas over its two days, but some in particular stood out – most notably, I felt, virtualisation, verticals, exclusive ownership of spectrum, and operator-led strategies.

In fact these themes often overlapped, and as Real Wireless is already involved in such initiatives as MoNArch and AutoAir, in which trials and testbeds are exploring the theoretical and practical benefits of virtualisation, we have a strong interest in these subjects. I’d like therefore to focus on these four themes in this look at RAN World.

The implications of going into the verticals with software-based and agile solutions were part of the discussion from the start. Take, for example, my day one fireside chat with the TIM CTO Elisabetta Romano, which took place two days after the announcement that Telecom Italia had paid €2.4 billion for spectrum in 700MHz, 3.7GHz, and 26GHz . Given that one strong theme of RAN World was about trying to get to the point where the vertical opportunity was clearer and very much operator-led, TIM now seems in a prime spectrum-holding position to develop an appropriate strategy.

I was, incidentally, delighted that Elisabetta went on to talk about TIM’s trials projects in Italy. Telecom Italia has a significant number of trials ongoing; in fact, during the fireside chat we discussed the testbed that Telecom Italia led the development of with the MoNArch project. This is significant. We at Real Wireless firmly believe that an important part of improving the chances of growing business in the verticals comes from demonstrating and co-creating solutions with partners within the verticals.

However, during this discussion there was a recognition of the need for new skills acquisition as well as the need for significant new infrastructure – and not just RAN but also IT. There is clearly a significant investment ahead. One hopes that the very large fees paid for spectrum in the Italian market won’t detract from those transformation objectives. It will be interesting to see how that market develops.

Verticals were also a feature of the day 2 working group meeting on Virtualisation and C-RAN, moderated by Real Wireless.

Some telling points emerged during the working group, notably that C-RAN has become synonymous with centralisation. A Softbank presentation underlined the challenge of virtualisation innovation in a mature centralised platform. Meanwhile terms like vRAN are helping to shift the solution discussion squarely onto the virtualisation value proposition. I and the participants were generally of the opinion that the overused term C-RAN may now be detracting from the real value propositions. Should we just drop the C-RAN label?

The point, I believe, is that virtualisation could lower capex and create the opportunity for new business models. Moreover, a lot of the innovative approaches on virtualisation are actually coming through IT and enterprise-oriented thinking. The ability to plug virtualised solutions into standard IT infrastructure is an attractive concept and it may not be well served by starting the discussion from the classic RAN architecture thinking of, say, 3GPP.

As Softbank noted, having a very large, integrated radio access network architecture and then virtualising it from that point is not easy to justify economically. By contrast a virtualised platform is actually more familiar to the verticals. Given where they are today with their basic IT systems, I would argue that they just treat communications as another service on their virtualised platform rather than thinking of it as a separate offering.

So could that be a key to unlocking the promise of the verticals as communications partners? Could it be that verticals would be better served by a virtualised platform plugged into their ecosystem than by a big mobile operator offering to sell them a service?

Verticals and virtualisation should transform the RAN discussion. In fact they may already have done so, with the enterprise segment potentially holding the key. It’s a topic we hope to return to more than once in the year leading up to RAN World 2019.

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