Virtualization: What it is and how it’s shaping Verizon’s 5G network
Virtualization allows us to respond quickly to users’ needs—laying the foundation to be able to give each network function the exact resources it needs at exactly the right time.
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In September 2022, Verizon announced that it had deployed 8,000 virtualized radio access network (vRAN) sites across the U.S., with a goal of deploying more than 20,000 by the end of 2025. (The number of deployed sites is now over 10,000, so we’re well on our way.) It was a huge milestone that sets Verizon’s network apart and shows its commitment to advanced technologies in its network. But what exactly is a vRAN? What’s the purpose of all these sites, and how will virtualization benefit consumers and businesses? Let’s take a look.
What is a virtualized radio access network (vRAN)? And how does one work?
Before we get to virtualized radio access networks, let’s start with the basic radio access network, or RAN. The RAN connects wireless devices to the network core, which provides computing and workload capabilities, internet connectivity, and more. A RAN is composed of the hardware and software at a cell site—the most common example being antennas and radios on cell towers or on buildings.
In the past, a RAN was typically built around hardware and software provided by a single company. You couldn’t mix and match hardware from one company with software from another, and that made systems less flexible.
As networks evolved and customer demand and expectations changed—especially with the new capabilities introduced by the high speed and low latency of 5G—the need for greater flexibility and scalability to manage a network and deliver a variety of services became more apparent.
“If we wanted to make changes to the network—whether to the software or the hardware—it was a very manual process to make a change,” explains Karen Schulz, global network and technology communications at Verizon.
A vRAN changes this in two ways. First, it decouples RAN hardware from software so they don’t need to come from a single provider. Second, it moves the software to the cloud. That’s how we optimize the value of virtualization.
“Virtualization means that we do not have to go and touch a particular cell site to make a software change,” explains Schulz. “We can now do it through the cloud. And once virtualized, we can automate many of the functions to deploy changes even faster for customers.”
In fact, Verizon engineers have been able to use virtualization to dramatically speed up how improvements are rolled out. Over the course of six months, engineers have been able to quadruple the number of cell sites receiving software upgrades in a single night. This points to another key point: Our technology is a competitive advantage, and so are the people running our networks.
“When we have technical evolution across any part of our network, our people step up to that challenge and become industry leaders overnight,” says Adam Koeppe, SVP of Technology Strategy and Planning. “They really push the industry forward.”
How is a vRAN different?
The move to virtualization builds more flexibility into the network, which is a necessity, as 5G allows for more new uses, such as advanced Internet of Things (IoT) technologies.
“With vRAN architecture, we can create ways for the network to automatically configure changes and scale resources dynamically based on demand,” Schulz says. “This means faster delivery of services to our customers, much greater scalability and greatly increased efficiency.” And that all adds up to a great experience for customers.
As the network becomes virtualized, it also starts to allow for future Open Radio Access Network (ORAN) development. Where a vRAN decouples RAN software from hardware, an ORAN opens up the software so that it is no longer proprietary—meaning any developer can create software on an open RAN , and the software can run on common-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. Increasing ORAN standardization will allow Verizon to work with top developers to innovate quickly and introduce new services efficiently.
“ORAN opens the market up for us to be able to choose the very best developers, innovate more quickly and introduce new services to customers more quickly,” says Schulz. “But it comes with the challenge of integration.” In other words, standards for ORAN need to be set and agreed upon within the industry—and that work is ongoing via the O-RAN Alliance and 3GPP.
That said, Verizon is planning for an ORAN future today. “It’s a rolling evolution,” Schulz says. “We’ve got a strong foundation for ORAN already deployed in our network. We’re very much on the leading edge of commercializing and operationalizing vRAN architecture.”
How vRANs are shaping the future
At its heart, the benefit of virtualization is in adjusting the way a network responds to demands so that it can always offer the best service for a particular need, whether that might be basic video streaming or the management of complex communications for a fleet of autonomous vehicles.
“The goal is to automate the network configuration changes so that we can scale resources dynamically,” Schulz explains. This can allow for the right service level, whether a customer is employing massive-scale Internet of Things solutions in manufacturing, an AR/VR experience on the go or simply sending messages while on the move. Whatever the use case, the network can automatically scale the right resources for that use case and provide an exceptional experience. “This ultimately makes us more efficient in how we run our network, and ensures our customers have exactly what they need when they need it,” Schulz says.
In the end, this creates a more reliable network—no matter what you’re using it for.
1. Based on most first place rankings in RootMetrics® 2H 2022 assessments of 125 metros. Experiences may vary. Not an endorsement. Tested with best commercially available smartphones on three national mobile networks across all available network types. Your experiences may vary. RootMetrics rankings are not an endorsement of Verizon.