In the UK, the operator with the least need to deploy Open RAN might seem to be Virgin Media O2, since its mobile arm – formerly Telefónica O2 – had almost no reliance on Huawei equipment in its networks. By contrast, BT EE and Vodafone UK are both engaged in replacing Chinese equipment, which in Vodafone’s case has been one reason for its enthusiasm for Open RAN.
A more open ecosystem could usher in a more diverse supply chain and the ability to deploy multivendor networks, Vodafone has argued, and its first commercial Open RAN networks have been rolled out in the UK, in a few rural areas. Ironically though, the operator that is chasing it is not BT – which remains very cautious about Open RAN outside the enterprise environment – but VMO2.
VMO2 has switched on Open RAN macro sites in the county of Northamptonshire, working with NEC and Rakuten Symphony. The three companies had been conducting Open RAN lab trials since last year.
“The successful activation of Virgin Media O2’s first UK macrosites demonstrates the potential of the multivendor Open RAN model,” said Jeanie York, CTO at VMO2, in a statement.
Of course, Telefónica remains a parent of VMO2, along with Liberty Global-owned cable provider Virgin Media, following their merger last year. And Telefónica is one of the ‘Gang of Five’ European operators that has been banging the drum for Open RAN after signing a memorandum of understanding to drive a European ecosystem (Vodafone is another, along with Orange, Deutsche Telekom and TIM). At corporate level, Telefónica has set out ambitious plans for Open RAN in its European markets.
The VMO2 roll-out may be small so far, but it is another win for Rakuten Symphony, the vendor arm of the Japanese greenfield MNO, which is offering a platform made up of offerings from a range of vendors, plus integration services. Operators can buy individual elements, as Dish is doing in the USA with the use of Altiostar RAN functions and an observability function; or sign up for a whole pre-integrated network plus services, as Germany’s new entrant, Drillisch 1&1, plans.
In the VMO2 deployment, NEC is responsible for systems integration, while Symphony provides the edge cloud (based on Robin.io stack, another acquisition); Open RAN software (Altiostar); and radio management and operations system. In a pre-merger trial with O2 UK, NEC was working with several partners, including Altiostar, GigaTera (for radio units) and Supermicro (for cloud hardware). At the time, O2 UK said it would use Open RAN initially to fill rural gaps and would open its supply chain to “non-traditional” RAN partners, specifically mentioning Dense Air (now part of Google), Mavenir, Vilicom (now part of BAI) and Wavemobile.
Post-merger, VMO2 has also been trialling 4G and 5G network equipment from Samsung, which can support Open RAN specifications “with some configuration changes and additional support in the future”.
Rakuten and Telefónica signed a memorandum of understanding for Open RAN development in September 2020, which was mainly focused on Altiostar (in which Telefónica owned a stake before it was acquired by the Japanese firm).
Telefónica’s European Open RAN plan is now at Phase 1 (after a pre-commercial Phase 0), which calls for commercial deployments of up to 200 sites starting in 2022 and 2023. Phase 2 is described by the operator as “massive deployment aiming for 30%–50% of RAN growth” from late 2023.