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13 December 2022

Vodafone embarks on urban O-RAN with service transformation in sight

If there is one lesson that the large operators have belatedly learned, it is that network evolution and new strategies for applications and services must be tightly integrated. Too often, operators have invested in new, powerful infrastructure but continued to monetize in the same old way; or alternatively have set out ambitious programs for new applications without optimizing network capabilities to match.

But Telefónica’s API platform initiative (see separate item) is tied closely to its plans for agile network infrastructure; and Vodafone’s pursuit of open virtualized RAN architectures increasingly seems to be about more than just opening up the supply chain, and to be part of a wider goal of developing fully flexible service platforms.

The problem is that investing in, and deploying, new networks tends to take longer than operators ideally have to transform their service revenues. This is particularly true when the architectures are very new and immature, as is the case with 5G vRAN, both closed or open (see separate item on centralized RAN). There are many question marks over how soon Open RAN networks will be sufficiently robust to deliver equivalent performance to a traditional architecture in urban areas with dense populations and high traffic loads.

Vodafone, along with a few other operators such as Rakuten, NTT Docomo and Bharti Airtel, is looking to accelerate the progress of making Open RAN ready for urban macrocell deployment, the most challenging environment for 5G.

For the first time, it is rolling out Open RAN cells in towns rather than the rural areas where its first deployments have been concentrated. In its first Open RAN market, the UK, it is building 16 live macrocells in the towns of Exmouth and Torquay in Devon, west England.

These are hardly major metropolises, and we can assume it will take longer for Vodafone to deploy in central London, for instance, but this is still a significant increase in complexity and challenge compared to rural roll-outs. And this is the first example of Open RAN being deployed in a live urban environment in Europe, according to Vodafone.

The operator has set a target of switching on 2,500 UK Open RAN sites by 2027, and to migrate 30% of its mobile macrosites to Open RAN by 2030. The first objective of this scheme was to diversify the supply chain following the UK government’s ban on using Huawei in 5G networks (only one UK operator, Telefónica – now VMO2 – had no reliance on the Chinese vendor).

The initial Open RAN sites to be deployed by Vodafone were architecturally simple, as befitted their low traffic loads, mainly supporting the most mature element of the O-RAN architecture, the Open Fronthaul interface. But as it moves into more urban environments, Vodafone will also be piloting the use of disaggregated, virtualized RAN, as specified by the full-blown (though not fully finalized) O-RAN architecture. This will shift the focus from supplier diversity – Samsung is the operator’s primary UK Open RAN partner – to network agility and the potential more easily to support new service models such as slicing, and new immersive user experiences such as metaverse.

After all, the huge disruption and risk that comes with migration to a new architecture cannot be justified solely in terms of vendor choice and the hope of improved price competition. Unlike some migrations of the past, the move to vRAN and/or Open RAN must be closely aligned to an operator’s service and monetization strategies for 5G.

Vodafone UK ‘s chief network officer, Andrea Dona, said: “The potential of Open RAN is huge and clear to see. But to realize this potential, we need to deploy the technology out in the live network and take it from rural to urban locations.”

The operator’s first live 5G Open RAN site was switched on in January near the city of Bath in southwest England. It runs on a Samsung vRAN solution, with virtualized baseband functions supported by Intel-based Dell servers. Also involved are Capgemini for testing and integration, and Wind River, whose Studio software manages containerized Open RAN workloads (centralized unit and distributed unit), plus automation, orchestration and network function lifecycle management.

Vodafone listed the same partners in its latest announcement. V

The UK government has set a goal of having 35% of mobile traffic carried over Open RAN networks by 2030, although the exact definitions remain vague. The plan is backed by £36m ($47.5m) in funding for 15 Open RAN trials across three of the countries of the UK, Scotland, Wales and England; as well as a £15m cash injection for the government-backed SONIC prototype testing facility for next-generation telecoms technology.

Vodafone is also trialling Open RAN in other markets, notably Germany, where it recently said it had completed a field test in Plauen, in Germany’s Saxony region. The first two live Open RAN sites planned in Germany are in rural Bavaria and will be piloted from early next year.