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18 April 2023

Virgin Media O2 picks Mavenir Open RAN, openness questions loom

Virgin Media O2, the joint venture of European cable giant Liberty Global and Telefonica’s UK operations, has announced that it has selected network equipment vendor Mavenir, to supply its Open RAN gear. This appears to be an exclusive deal, and a chance for Mavenir to prove the concrete return on investment for customers.

Mavenir will act as the primary integrator, and will specifically be providing its Open virtualized Radio Access Network (Open vRAN) portfolio. Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) says it has selected Mavenir to enable a more flexible and cloud-native architecture. To this end, Mavenir says its Open vRAN suite has been designed to be cloud-native, leveraging containerized microservices that can be deployed easily on any cloud platform.

Specifically, Mavenir’s Open vRAN supports the Open RAN Split 7.2 and Split 2 interfaces. These specifications denote where specific functions of the Open RAN architecture are deployed. For Split 2, the Radio Unit (RU) and Distributed Unit (DU) are deployed at the RAN site itself, comprising layers 1 and 2 of the OSI stack – the Physical and Data layers.

In terms of architecture, ‘fronthaul’ is the step between the RU and the DU, with the CU located much further back in the network. For Split 2, where the entirety of the DU and RU are found at the RAN site, there is no fronthaul.

For Split 7.2, only the lower parts of the physical layer are deployed at the RAN site, with the rest deployed after the fronthaul, further back in the network. Here, the fronthaul step functions between the RU and the disaggregated DU that are found at the RAN site, and then the rest of the DU that is further back in the network.

‘Midhaul’ describes the link between the DU and the CU, with ‘backhaul’ denoting the link between the CU and the MNO’s Packet Core. Both Split 2 and Split 7.2 have the same backhaul and CU architecture, but the location of the DU and the associated need for fronthaul is where they differ drastically.

Mavenir says support for both helps further disaggregate the DU and CU, which allows for them to be deployed on Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) hardware. Perhaps the only concrete equipment deal in the announcement was that the servers running these functions will use Intel CPUs.

It is not clear which of the approaches VMO2 is favoring, but Mavenir makes it clear that the Open vRAN system supports both simultaneously. Notably, Mavenir says this supports a vendor-agnostic environment for VMO2, but there are no other vendor names floated in the announcement.

This emphasizes one of the main critiques of Open RAN as an ethos, which is that the early deployments have been largely driven by one vendor. As such, the openness of Open RAN is not really leveraged in the field, and is instead largely a tool to use to get better pricing agreements out of the incumbents RAN vendors.

For years, Ericsson and Nokia enjoyed a cozy duopoly, before the arrival of Huawei upturned the applecart. Post-sanctions, Huawei has been severely diminished, with Open RAN still to prove that it has the momentum needed to properly revolutionize the RAN marketplace.

To this end, Open RAN provides MNOs with something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card, which they can use in their negotiations with Nokia and Ericsson. Using the likes of Mavenir, they are able to squeeze better terms from their incumbent suppliers, while ready to jump ship to Open RAN if needed. Unfortunately, because no MNO has taken that radical plunge yet, it means that the mass-scale Open RAN approach has yet to be properly battle-tested.

Mavenir says that the deployment will run on a fully virtualized physical and data layer (OSI levels 1 and 2) software stack, running on equipment powered by Intel’s Xeon Scalable Processors. In addition, Intel is providing its vRAN Accelerator ACC100 units and Intel 800 Series Ethernet adapters. Mavenir is providing its OpenBeam Radios, which include massive MIMO functions.

A rather vague mention of “third-party O-RAN based Radio Units” is the extent of the openness of the announcement. These will be used for fronthaul, network monitoring, and optimization, says Mavenir. However, the utility of Open RAN will be deemed in a few years, when the likes of VMO2 enter refresh cycles, and find out just how easy it is to add third-party vendors to the mix.

VMO2’s CTO, Jeanie York said that “through digitalizing our networks, we’re seamlessly integrating our infrastructure to get more value from our existing assets. Extending our collaboration with Mavenir to the RAN for the first time will help us establish a future-proof Open vRAN architecture, unlocking the benefits of a multi-vendor open interface while allowing us to rapidly benefit from an end-to-end network solution.”

Mavenir’s CEO, Pardeep Kohli, said “our Open vRAN cloud-native approach presents new pathways for automated networks to deliver on the use cases and data demands of today and beyond – driving network elasticity, flexibility and best-in-class automation. The Mavenir OpenBeam radio portfolio fully complements Virgin Media O2’s full spectrum requirements and we look forward to playing an active role in unlocking network automation and openness in the RAN.”