Earlier in June, Qualcomm announced its acquisition of radio access network (RAN) management platform provider Cellwize. Having previously acknowledged a need to strengthen its position in RAN architecture, Qualcomm’s purchase gives Qualcomm the ability to bridge the gap between traditional networks and virtualized RAN (vRAN) or Open RAN-compliant infrastructure.
Founded in 2013, Cellwize develops solutions for cloud and artificial intelligence-based RAN automation and orchestration — including non-real-time RAN intelligent controllers (RICs). According to the firm, deployment of its software supports about 3 million base stations for 40 mobile network operators worldwide.
Let’s consider the acquisition and what it means for operators, Qualcomm and the 5G network market. The purchase’s primary asset is Cellwize’s platform, a software system that the company says can connect any type of RAN and any type of application, while enabling service creation through its RIC-based application handling. Known as CHIME, the platform uses artificial intelligence to help optimize the configuration of 5G hardware — but arguably it’s in the deployment of software-based network elements where it becomes most powerful.
As global 5G network deployment continues, there’s a growing shift to more software-driven networks; traditionally hardware-based network resources and functions are being abstracted or virtualized. In the mobile network this has led to the virtualization of RAN, offering operators a road map for migration from custom-built network nodes to network functionality implemented in software and running on generic hardware.
Virtualization is synonymous with disaggregation of RAN, in effect splitting its protocol stack into individual elements that can be deployed independently. This architecture offers many potential benefits compared with integrated end-to-end network systems — better energy efficiency, network performance and dynamic radio resource management — as well as supporting innovation for each network element, all of which could be sourced from different manufacturers.
But although RAN disaggregation gives mobile operators more architectural flexibility, as well as more choice regarding solutions providers, all the disaggregated elements of the network eventually need to be reaggregated for the network to operate in a unified way — and complexity needs to be reduced. Qualcomm does have virtualized RAN products such as massive-MIMO and accelerator card solutions. But CHIME’s capabilities are focussed on automating and orchestrating elements from multiple providers — not necessarily just those from its new parent company.
Cellwize’s cloud-native platform offers RAN automation and orchestration in Open RAN-compliant networks, as well for traditional RAN architectures. CHIME sits on top of RAN elements such as the radio unit or virtualized radio unit, distributed unit (which could also be virtualized) and centralized unit. As more operators move toward virtualized RAN architectures, being able to orchestrate both hardware and software-based network elements, as well as hybrid traditional, Open RAN and vRAN networks, becomes increasingly important.
The acquisition follows Qualcomm’s announcements at MWC 2022 about its RAN automation and cloud platform for public and private mobile networks. In a briefing for analysts, Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager of cellular modems and infrastructure, stated that the acquisition of Cellwize would help operators “put together pieces of the puzzle of the connected edge” and in particular of the connected enterprise edge, a potentially challenging environment.
Cellwize will certainly add value to private network deployment, typically characterized by small cells with network elements like RAN and e-SIMs from multiple suppliers. Systems integrators are playing an increasingly prominent role in this, coordinating between operators, cloud providers, IT providers and the enterprise itself to, in effect, put together the pieces. To do this, systems integrators need a RAN automation solution that can function in private mobile network scenarios.
The emerging private network environment is a market — or more correctly, a range of markets — with complex needs, often based on sophisticated uses. This complexity reflects not only the technologies involved, as 5G potentially has to interact with edge computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics, but also the commercial landscape, with several parties typically involved in providing the overall service. Cellwize’s platform has the potential to simplify these deployments; CHIME has network planning and set-up capabilities, integration with IT tools for network monitoring and network visibility through a management console.
Several factors mean that complexity in the mobile network is increasing, including different frequency bands, massive-MIMO and virtualized, disaggregated networks potentially using multiple companies’ services. Network automation and orchestration have become vital in managing this complexity — and in less than a decade, Cellwize has built a strong reputation by addressing these requirements.
The acquisition of Cellwize enhances Qualcomm’s ability to innovate in and deploy software-driven, cloud-based 5G networks, supporting operators as they transition to Open RAN and vRAN architectures. I believe that operators will welcome the move by Qualcomm, because Cellwize’s RAN automation solution helps reduce 5G network deployment time and simplifies network management, bringing features to market faster and providing a market for customizable applications in numerous industries.
The purchase also strengthens Qualcomm’s position as a proponent for the global adoption of Open RAN standards-based infrastructure and 5G private networks. And, ultimately, this encourages a more diverse, multisupplier environment.
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