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22 June 2021

MTN expands its supplier base; provides shining example for rural O-RAN

When major telcos in the world’s biggest mobile economies share their Open RAN vendors or milestones, they naturally attract significant attention, but this can obscure the amount of activity and innovation that is going on in developing economies.

There are good reasons why the Open RAN community can look to these markets for an early impetus:

  • Operators will often have very challenging cost efficiency targets as they expand 4G and plan 5G while grappling with low ARPUs
  • The growth in mobile usage is as high in most developing economies as in mature markets, so operators have an urgent need for platforms that will support that flexibly, while not driving costs up too sharply
  • Operators will sometimes have made less recent or widespread investments in their RANs than counterparts in mature regions, so will have a more urgent need to upgrade their networks, while having fewer requirements to sweat recently acquired assets before migrating to new platforms
  • Many operators have challenging coverage targets and an intensifying need to extend mobile broadband services to rural areas, driven by governments or their own need for new subscribers

These factors mean that interest from emerging market operators in Open RAN is intense, and even the global tier one players such as Telefónica have often conducted their first trials and roll-outs in their less developed markets.

Among the operators trialling or deploying Open RAN are Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio in India, Vodacom and MTN in Southern Africa, Telkomsel and Smartfren in Indonesia, Vodafone in Democratic Republic of Congo, and Telefónica in Peru.

One of those players, MTN, last week revealed its choice of five Open RAN vendors, to support the start of commercial roll-outs, mainly for rural extension, by the end of this year. That could see them leapfrogging Vodafone and its African partners, Safaricom in Kenya and Vodacom. Vodafone said it would expand its Open RAN roll-out to some African markets from 2022, when it recently announced its vendors for its UK rural deployment. It was not clear whether the UK-based operator plans to use the same partners worldwide, though that would align with a push by CEO Nick Read to centralize more procurement and platform development at group level.

MTN’s chosen suppliers include three US suppliers of Open RAN software (and in some cases hardware) –  Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless – plus two Indian partners, Voyage and Tech Mahindra. The operator said it will use Open RAN to expand 4G and 5G services, while reducing cost and energy consumption.

One of these suppliers, Parallel, was already engaged with MTN for its small-scale roll-out of Open RAN to address some rural coverage gaps, which started in late 2019. Its other partners in this project, which aimed to deploy about 5,000 sites across Africa, were Vanu and NuRAN. Currently, MTN reportedly has over 1,100 commercial Open RAN sites in 11 countries.

Both of these are companies whose solutions are very specific to supporting affordable coverage of very rural areas using lightweight base stations. NuRAN, for instance, has deals with The Philippines’ Globe Telecom and others for rural connectivity based on its LiteRAN  base station for remote deployments, which is being validated by Telecom Infra Project. The start-up will also distribute products based on the Facebook/TIP OpenCellular design for an open source small cell, as those emerge.

For a more widespread roll-out, MTN has clearly gone for a wider selection of vendors with experience in different environments, and is one of the first operators to select all three of the leading challenger suppliers of Open RAN software. This may point to use of different suppliers in different regions or environments to reduce risk and promote a best-of-breed strategy, or to a true Open RAN implementation in which different vendors’ xNFs are combined on a common platform.

“This is a real game-changer for mobile advancement in emerging markets,” said Amith Maharaj, MTN’s group head of network planning and design. “While Open RAN brings a new architecture to mobile networks and more suppliers to deal with, it gives telcos much-needed flexibility. This means that MTN can now look at building a network that can meet cost and capacity requirements of specific markets, or even rapidly deploy 5G and/or 4G seamlessly with existing legacy services.”