An app store for 5G network operators could open – possibly | Light reading

(Source: incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Today’s iOS and Android app stores are full of options. From Angry Birds to Instagram to Fart World, there are literally millions of apps to educate, entertain, and annoy the smartphone-toting masses.

And now, there’s a growing push to build a similar app store for 5G network operators. If the backers of the plan are successful, that shop could eventually offer all kinds of arcane but useful goodies for network management.

Instead of pig-tossing games, operators could choose from a variety of energy-optimizing offers. Instead of selfie-clogged social media sites, network engineers could try the latest AI-powered anomaly detection services. Instead of Fart Cushion, Fart Box or Burp and Fart Piano (all of which are true iPhone apps), 5G providers could install Aira Technologies’ new Dynamic Radio Network Management app or Ericsson’s RAN Energy Cockpit app.

At least, that’s the hope.

“The idea is to create an ecosystem of developers,” Ericsson’s Paul Challoner, vice president of North American network products for the provider, said on the sidelines of the recent Big 5G Event in Austin, Texas. Ericsson is one of several companies hoping to not only develop the apps that would go inside this new store, but also build the store itself. And possibly also possess the metaphorical terrain that surrounds it.

“It just takes time,” acknowledged Ronny Haraldsvik at the same event. Haraldsvik is the CMO of Cohere Technologies, one of a growing number of startups that want to offer one of the “killer apps” that could propel the app store from concept to reality.

From Java to iOS to rApps

There are some parallels between the early days of smartphone apps about a decade ago and today’s early xApps and rApps for 5G networks.

First, there are more shops. The early days of the smartphone app ecosystem featured a choice between Java and BREW apps that ran on flip phones. Then the introduction of modern touchscreen phones has shifted this choice to platforms including iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, and WebOS. Before winners (like iOS) and losers (like Windows Mobile) emerged, smartphone app developers were forced to choose which platform to focus on and which to ignore.

(Source: incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo)

(Source: incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Today’s 5G network app developers are faced with similar choices. First, they must decide whether to develop xApps, rApps, or both. The xApps are targeted at Near-Real-Time RAN Intelligent Controllers (Near-RT RIC). rApps are intended for non-real-time RAN (non-RT RIC) intelligent controllers.

RICs provide an open hosting platform for software that can control the 5G radio access network (RAN). Near-RT RICs can control operations at each individual site in the cell, such as mobile customer handovers, because they operate at speeds as low as 10 milliseconds. Non-RT RICs, on the other hand, are much slower but can control overall grid operations such as energy usage.

Players are starting to make their choices. Ericsson, for example, currently only supports rApps, but officials said the company may develop xApps in the future. Cohere, meanwhile, offers an xApp that it claims can dramatically improve spectrum efficiency.

According to a market forecast, RIC apps will generate $600 million by the end of 2025. To put that into perspective, consumers spent an estimated $129 billion globally on iOS and Android apps last year, according to one estimate.

App store complications

Much like the early days of smartphone apps, today’s network management app market is nothing short of complex.

For example, more ecosystems are starting to emerge to support various vendor setups. This is forcing app developers to choose between chip vendors like Intel and Qualcomm and RIC vendors including Juniper Networks and VMware.

Another headache for developers: getting the data you need to develop proper apps. After all, RAN data is often viewed as highly proprietary between network operators and is typically not shared.

The situation is somewhat similar to the early days of smartphone app development. iOS and Android app developers have often complained that they can’t access key features like background processing. As the smartphone market has matured, however, many of these concerns have been addressed.

Some big names are already promising to iron out at least some of the mess in the RAN app development space. Microsoft said its new “programmable” RAN is a system “where any developer can securely and controlled upload their own custom or third-party code by implementing a service model directly on a live RAN platform.”

Such offerings somewhat echo the early days of the smartphone app ecosystem, when HTML-based app development platforms promised to allow developers to build a version of an application that could be easily ported to iOS, Android and other platforms.

A final major complexity hovering over the xApp and rApp industry is the fact that the entire ecosystem is intended to run on top of the O-RAN Alliance’s open RAN specification. While open RAN technologies have gained some traction among both new and established vendors, the technology is currently applicable to a very small percentage of the global 5G industry. This means that RAN developers cannot yet expect a large reach for their apps.

Also, third-party rApps and xApps are different from the GSMA’s new “Open Gateway” effort. It focuses on opening application programmable interfaces (APIs) in 5G networks for external applications, rather than encouraging the development of applications for the network itself.

However, both new and established network operators are dipping their toes into the concept of third-party network management xApps and rApps. Dish Network built its entire 5G network with the intention of supporting open RAN specifications.

And AT&T, one of the world’s oldest telecom operators, recently tested a Near-RT RIC with provider Nokia which featured xApps for traffic management and anomaly detection.

App proliferation

Despite all the challenges facing the xApp and rApp market, there is a growing drive to develop such applications.

“There was a lot of hype about rApps and xApps” at the recent MWC trade show in Barcelona in February, neXt Curve analyst Leonard Lee wrote in a recent post on his website. “We have seen vendors across the board from Ericsson, Nokia, Juniper Networks, VMware and Qualcomm (with their acquisition of Cellwize) come to market with RIC and Service Management and Orchestration (SMO) offerings.”

Similarly, Heavy Reading analyst Ruth Brown said the sector is showing signs of maturity. (Heavy Reading and Light Reading are owned by the same parent company, Informa.)

“RIC apps and the developer community are progressing and, over time, will enable smarter RAN operations. It was great to see some real-life examples” at the MWC in Barcelona, ​​he wrote in his recap of the show.

Aside from the big vendors like Ericsson and Juniper, some of the smaller companies focusing on the rApp and xApp space include Aira Technologies, AirHop Communications, Aspire Technology, Rimedo Labs, Accelleran and Cohere. If network operators can show real interest in such players, whether through investment or actual implementations, other small players are likely to emerge. This is important considering that many attribute the overall success of the iOS and Android app stores to the ability of smaller indie developers to create a hit.

And what types of network management apps do vendors sell? rEnergy saving apps pop up left and right. Fujitsu, Juniper, Aira and Ericsson are among many network app developers touting rApps that can turn off 5G radios when they’re not needed, thereby saving electricity.

Such apps are definitely worth it: AT&T’s network chief recently bragged about the operator’s cash savings from technology that shuts down parts of its wireless network at night.

(Source: Phil Harvey/Alamy Stock Photo)

(Source: Phil Harvey/Alamy Stock Photo)

But those apps don’t quite capture the imagination the way Pokemon Go or TikTok did for many smartphone users.

Another similarity between many of the early developers of xApp and rApp: the use of AI and ML technologies. It’s no surprise, though: artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) promise to automate complex tasks, and RAN management certainly is.

One final analogy: the shop owner

The parallels between the network management app market and the smartphone app market are not perfect. For example, one of the main objectives of the O-RAN Alliance is the development of interfaces between different network equipment. Meanwhile, the primary purpose of the iOS app store is to lock customers into the Apple ecosystem.

But there’s one part of the analogy that Challoner, of networking equipment giant Ericsson, agrees with. He said he sees Ericsson as a developer of rApps in the same way that Apple itself creates apps for iOS. Apple, of course, still provides some basic iOS apps from Weather to Mail for iPhones, iPads, and other gadgets that Apple builds itself. Similarly, Challoner said Ericsson can provide some of the apps that would run inside their own RAN equipment.

This point of view raises questions about how the entire xApp and rApp ecosystem could evolve. For example, Apple currently controls all iOS apps. Who is going to play that kind of role in the network management app space? Already VMware boasts of having certified more than 300 RAN apps and even hosted an “appathon” at the recent MWC Barcelona show. Meanwhile, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) maintains a market for interoperable open RAN implementations and wants to provide these kinds of certifications to the wider industry. But it doesn’t operate an app store for xApps and rApps.

Regardless, the prospect of a 5G network management app store could eventually pave the way for a potentially dramatic reshuffle in the RAN vendor space. Will incumbents like Samsung and Nokia continue to ship the software that runs their hardware RAN? Or will new developers emerge who can do it better and at a lower price?

The trajectory of Rovio, the Finnish startup that rose to fame with the once-popular Angry Birds game, might be instructive. After hitting the big time (the company even backed an Angry Birds movie), Rovio has struggled to make a profit from its mobile game franchise. Earlier this year, Rovio was acquired by Sega. Sega is a Japanese company that pioneered the video game industry with both hardware consoles like the Dreamcast and software titles like Sonic the Hedgehog.

It means that it is not known how the space will develop. Today’s leaders may eventually fall into the hands of companies once thought irrelevant.

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Mike Dano, editorial director, 5G and mobile strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano


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