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An app store for 5G network operators could open – eventuallyAn app store for 5G network operators could open – eventually

Smartphone app stores gave birth to a range of apps such as Angry Birds, Instagram and even Fart World. Now, open RAN technology may create a similar marketplace for xApps and rApps for 5G networks.

Mike Dano

May 30, 2023

9 Min Read
An app store for 5G network operators could open – eventually

Today's iOS and Android app stores are overflowing with 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 proponents of the plan are successful, that store might eventually offer all kinds of arcane but useful network-management goodies.

Instead of pig-throwing games, operators could select from a wide range of energy-optimization offerings. Instead of selfie-clogged social media sites, network engineers could try out the latest AI-driven anomaly detection services. Instead of Fart Cushion, Fart Box or Burp and Fart Piano (which are all real iPhone apps), 5G providers might install Aira Technologies' new Dynamic Radio Network Management app, or Ericsson's RAN Energy Cockpit app.

At least, that's the hope.

"The whole idea is to create an ecosystem of developers," Ericsson's Paul Challoner, VP of the vendor's North American network products, 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 to build the store itself. And possibly to also own the metaphorical land around 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 wants 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 of roughly a decade ago and today's early xApps and rApps for 5G networks.

First, there are multiple stores. 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 shifted that choice across 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.

Figure 1: (Source: incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo) (Source: incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo)

Today's 5G network app developers are facing similar choices. First, they need to decide whether to develop xApps, rApps or both. xApps are intended for near-real-time RAN intelligent controllers (Near-RT RIC). rApps are intended for non-real-time RAN intelligent controllers (Non-RT RIC).

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 cell site, such as mobile customers' handovers, because they operate at speeds up to 10 milliseconds. Non-RT RICs, on the other hand, are far slower but can control overall network operations like energy usage.

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

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

App store complications

Just like the early days of smartphone apps, the market for today's network-management apps is nothing if not complex.

For example, multiple ecosystems are beginning to emerge in support of various vendor configurations. That's forcing app developers to choose between chip vendors such as Intel and Qualcomm and RIC providers including Juniper Networks and VMware.

Another developer headache: Obtaining the data necessary to develop suitable apps. After all, RAN networking data is often viewed as intensely proprietary among network operators and typically isn't shared.

The situation is somewhat similar to the early days of smartphone app development. iOS and Android app developers often complained that they couldn't get access to key functions like background processing. As the smartphone market matured, however, many of those concerns were addressed.

Some big names are already promising to smooth out at least some of the chaos in the RAN app-development space. Microsoft said its new "programmable" RAN is a system "in which each developer can – in a safe and controlled way – upload their own or third-party custom code implementing a service model directly onto a live RAN platform."

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

A final, major complexity hovering over the xApp and rApp sector is the fact that the entire ecosystem is intended to run on top of the O-RAN Alliance's open RAN specifications. Although 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 overall global 5G industry. Meaning, RAN developers can't yet expect a wide reach for their apps.

In addition, third-party rApps and xApps are different from the new "Open Gateway" effort from the GSMA. That's focused on opening Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) into 5G networks for external applications, rather than encouraging the development of applications for the network itself.

Nonetheless, both new and established network operators are dipping their toes into the concept of third-party network-management xApps and rApps. Dish Network has 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 vendor Nokia that featured xApps for traffic steering and anomaly detection.

App proliferation

Despite all the challenges facing the marketplace for xApps and rApps, there is a growing push to develop such applications.

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

Similarly, Heavy Reading Analyst Ruth Brown said that 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 in time, they will enable more intelligent RAN operations. It was good to see some real-life examples" at MWC Barcelona, she wrote in her own summary of the show.

Aside from 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 manage to show any real interest in such players – either through investments or actual deployments – it's likely that more small players will emerge. That's important considering many attribute the overall success of iOS and Android app stores to the ability of smaller, independent developers to create a hit.

And what kinds of network-management apps are vendors selling? Energy-saving rApps popping up left and right. Fujitsu, Juniper, Aira and Ericsson are among the many network-app developers touting rApps that can turn off 5G radios when they're not needed, thus saving electricity.

Such apps are certainly worthwhile: AT&T's networking chief recently boasted of the operator's cash savings from technology that powers down parts of its wireless network at night.

Figure 2: (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 has for many smartphone users.

Another similarity among many early xApp and rApp developers: The use of AI and ML technologies. That's not a surprise though: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) promise to automate complex tasks, and RAN management is certainly that.

A final analogy: The store owner

The parallels between the network-management app market and the smartphone app market aren't perfect. For example, a top goal of the O-RAN Alliance is to develop interfaces between different pieces of networking equipment. Meanwhile, the main purpose of the iOS app store is to lock customers into Apple's ecosystem.

But there is one part of the analogy that Challoner, of network equipment giant Ericsson, agrees with. He said he views Ericsson as an rApp developer in the same way that Apple itself makes iOS apps. Apple, of course, still provides some core iOS apps – from Weather to Mail – for iPhones, iPads and other gadgets that Apple itself builds. Similarly, Challoner said Ericsson can provide some of the apps that would run inside its own RAN equipment.

That viewpoint raises questions about how the overall xApp and rApp ecosystem might evolve. For example, Apple currently vets all iOS apps. Who will play that kind of a role in the network-management app space? Already VMware boasts that it has certified more than 300 RAN apps – it even hosted an "appathon" at the recent MWC Barcelona show. Meanwhile, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) operates a marketplace for interoperable open RAN deployments, and wants to provide those kinds of certifications to the larger industry. But it doesn't operate an app store for xApps and rApps.

Regardless, the prospect of a 5G network-management app store could ultimately pave the way for a potentially dramatic reshuffling in the RAN vendor space. Will incumbents like Samsung and Nokia continue to provide the software that runs their RAN hardware? Or will new developers emerge that can do it better and cheaper?

The trajectory of Rovio – the Finnish startup that rose to prominence with the once-popular Angry Birds game – might be instructive. After hitting it big (the company even backed an Angry Birds movie), Rovio struggled to profit from its mobile gaming 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.

Meaning, there's no telling how the space will develop. The leaders of today could eventually fall to companies once thought irrelevant.

Related posts:

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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