Large-scale deployment of open RAN, or indeed any virtualized RAN, in the established macro network footprint remains a medium term option at best, for most operators. However, many large telcos want to take the measure of emerging platforms and suppliers by putting them through their paces in greenfield sites, or in rural and emerging economies. Here, a low cost base is essential because of limited numbers of subscribers or limited disposable income; and in underserved areas, the risks of a new network being overwhelmed by traffic are lower, and quality of service expectations tend to be lower.
Even if O-RAN for primary, high traffic macro networks is a way off, rural areas are a different matter. Smaller operators working in rural regions, including in the USA, as well as large MNOs serving emerging economies in Africa and Asia, are heavy users of equipment from Huawei and ZTE. Most of these economies are not aligned to the USA sufficiently strongly to follow its lead on sanctions against Huawei, but their operators may be affected by the general nervousness about Huawei’s ability to access components and its future stability.
Vodafone and Telefónica have both been running trials of O-RAN equipment under the auspices of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), many of them in rural areas and in emerging economies such as Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru. Now Orange is joining the party, hiring Parallel Wireless, one of the challenger vendors which has pinned its colors to O-RAN, for a project to bring open networks to some of its African markets.
The deployment will start with the very poor and underserved nation of Central African Republic (CAR), extending 4G availability there at low cost and laying foundations for future 5G. Currently, Orange has 700,000 customers in the country, which has a population of 4.66m, and its services are entirely based on 2G and 3G. Parallel’s systems allow 2G, 3G 4G and 5G to run in a software-defined way on common infrastructure.
Hervé Suquet, Orange’s CTIO for the Middle East and Africa, said: “The combination of RAN openness and virtualization, automation and new revenue-generating opportunities will enable Orange to lead the market to meet the needs of our customers most effectively in Central African Republic.”
Deep partnerships with local integrators are essential to deployments in many emerging economies, and Orange and Parallel are working with I Engineering Group, which specializes in the sub-Saharan Africa region. The CAR project is part of Orange’s Ideal (Include Digital in Every African Life) program, which aims to bring digital services to customers with no connectivity today.
If the CAR roll-out is a success, Orange will extend the deployment to other markets, but has not specified which these might be. The company said recently that it aims to expand its already significant reach in Africa, and plans to bid for one of two licences which will be offered this year in Ethiopia.