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22 June 2021

Vodafone deal gives Samsung a big boost in European 5G RAN market

Samsung has been pushing at the door of major mobile operators for some years and Huawei’s exclusions in North America and parts of Europe have added impetus. Now, a significant deal with Vodafone for Open RAN 5G equipment in the UK at 2,500 rural sites suggests those efforts are starting to bear fruit in Europe (see Wireless Watch June 14 2021).

This follows some earlier signals by major European telcos that Samsung is welcome as an alternative supplier of RAN equipment, to avoid choice boiling down to little more than the Nordic duopoly of Ericsson and Nokia, and possibly Japan’s NEC.

Deutsche Telekom (DT) selected Samsung kit to trial 5G Standalone (SA) in the Czech Republic city of Pilsen early this year. Thijs was DT’s first such trial in Europe to evaluate performance and potential of SA 5G Massive MIMO technologies. It used Samsung’s 3.5 GHz Massive MIMO radio, which DT reported tripled spectral efficiency and multiplied throughput 2.5 times, compared with single-user MIMO. This was the operator’s first Massive MIMO deployment in Europe.

The latest Vodafone contract, covering sites in the southwest of England and most of Wales, is Samsung’s first large-scale 5G deal with a major European operator beyond trials. It was Three UK’s LTE supplier but was replaced as the 5G vendor by Huawei (which in turn is being replaced by Ericsson following the UK’s ban on the Chinese supplier).

Groundswell behind such a deal was strongest in the UK because of the stipulation that Huawei equipment must be removed from 5G networks, with a total ban on purchase of new Huawei 5G equipment having come into force in 2021. This helped the cause of the up-and-coming RAN vendors – if a company as large as Samsung can be so described –  and also helped build momentum behind Open RAN as a movement for attracting more vendors into the field. However, BT in particular has made the important point that Samsung does not support backwards compatibility with 2G/3G and SingleRAN architectures, which will be a significant barrier to its deployment (or that of many other challenger RAN vendors) in the main macro networks.

Vodafone, however, is starting with rural extension, and it has been particularly vocal in support of Open RAN (far more so than BT, for instance), in the belief this will, in the longer term, overcome supply chain constriction and lead to greater innovation and efficiency.

“Open RAN provides huge advantages for customers,” insisted Johan Wibergh, Vodafone’s group CTO. “Our network will become highly programmable and automated, meaning we can release new features simultaneously across multiple sites, add or direct capacity more quickly, resolve outages instantly and provide businesses with on-demand connectivity.”

Wibergh added that Open RAN was “reinvigorating” the telecommunications industry by boosting the digital economy and stimulating technology innovation.

The big established vendors have, to varying degrees, been ambivalent over Open RAN because it appears to threaten their dominance by making it easier for new vendors to compete, firstly around the margins of 5G deployments and later increasingly for bigger contracts in denser areas of usage. For Samsung and NEC on the other hand, Open RAN provides a welcome lever for prizing open some key operators as customers.

Not surprisingly, therefore, both have invested heavily in the approach, with NEC also having placed a stake in the UK in November 2020 by opening a Centre of Excellence dedicated to Open RAN development there. NEC’s efforts in the field first became apparent in April 2021 when Japan’s Rakuten Mobile nominated it as the supplier of its Open RAN radio, having embarked on an open 5G cloud-native network in the country. This led to closer collaboration as Rakuten Mobile and NEC, in May 2021, signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and promote Open RAN worldwide.

NEC is also a long-standing supplier to NTT Docomo in Japan, and is working on its Open RAN deployments also, though outside its home country, it often appears in a system integration role rather than necessarily as the primary RAN vendor. NEC has actually joined Dell, Capgemini Engineering and Wind River as partners with Samsung in the Vodafone UK deployment. Samsung, however, is supplying the radios, including some with integrated Massive MIMO antenna arrays.

There were early fears that operators such as Vodafone, affected by the bans on use of Huawei equipment, would bunker down and become more rather than less conservative over their purchasing strategies. It seemed they might stick with proven vendors in the fear that Open RAN, and use of unproven suppliers generally, would add complexity and cost at a time of competitive pressure to roll out 5G as quickly as possible. While some operators may indeed have tacked in that direction it does now seem that Open RAN is being embraced by some of the major Tier 1 telcos, at least in their secondary networks.

Such support for Open RAN was not inevitable, according to Vodafone, but has come about through commitment by key underlying vendors of silicon, which renders the indifference of some major infrastructure providers less relevant. A game-changing move was Qualcomm’s re-entry into the macrocell chipset market, announced in October 2020, and its subsequent agreement with Vodafone to develop Open RAN blueprints.

That was, according to Vodafone’s head of network architecture Santiago Tenorio, when “everything changed”. Speaking at Qualcomm’s 5G Summit in May, Tenorio argued that the chipmaker’s entry into the Open RAN field had already accelerated development of open equipment, particularly in the technically challenging Massive MIMO domain. That had earlier been lacking in Open RAN equipment, requiring tight integration between the chipsets and the radios that Qualcomm has been able to achieve.

Samsung has partnered with Qualcomm in 5G on the macrocell side but is also a maker of 5G silicon itself. Such developments have given Vodafone optimism that now Open RAN can deliver industry leading performance. “I think we have a reasonable chance to actually overtake the performance of the incumbent architecture,” said Tenorio.

Samsung, meanwhile, is also raising the Open RAN stakes in the USA by announcing that its commercial 5G virtualized RAN now supports its own latest Massive MIMO radios operating in C-band spectrum. Samsung is currently conducting field trials of these products with plans to commercialize them later in 2021.

This is especially relevant for the US market where an auction of C-band spectrum in the 3.7-3.98 GHz range concluded in February 2020, raising $81.17bn, smashing the previous auction record of $44bn. Verizon alone spent slightly more than that previous record on C-band licences ($45bn) and announced that its suppliers will be providing Open RAN equipment to support C-band 5G deployments by the end of 2021. Samsung is in there too, announcing that Verizon was the first operator to deploy the new equipment commercially.

But in a slight reality check, Verizon has also emphasized that Open RAN is not the only show in town and that there will still be a place for proprietary vertically integrated 5G infrastructure for some time to come.