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1 November 2022

Vodafone endorses Nokia as most advanced European O-RAN vendor

If we define Open RAN in its widest sense, as a multivendor network based on open interfaces, the fastest progress has been made not in Europe, but in the USA and south-east Asia. Rakuten Mobile in Japan, and Dish Network in the USA, are of course the first operators to deploy a virtualized Open RAN at scale. AT&T and China Mobile contributed much of the original sourcecode for O-RAN, and these operators, as well as Verizon, NTT Docomo and SK Telecom – among others – have defined open RAN specifications and pledged roll-outs from this year onwards.

However, in most cases these open networks are highly customized and do not necessarily use standard O-RAN specs (even in AT&T’s case). They will increase future-proofing and extend ecosystems within each operator’s own networks, but none of these highly advanced MNOs seems likely to entrust their key source of differentiation, network quality and agility, to industry standard architectures. The push to adopt common platforms and interfaces in order to drive down costs and simplify deployability has fallen to major operators that are primarily in Europe, led by the so-called Gang of Five (Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica, TIM and Vodafone), which have been working together to foster a Europe-centric ecosystem and to improve the economics of 5G for all.

Vodafone is the most aggressive of the five in putting concrete deployments and initiatives behind its words. At FYUZ, it disappointed some of the Open RAN idealists, who see the platform as a way to throw open the doors to 5G for a host of small suppliers. Vodafone actually endorsed Nokia as the vendor with the most complete Open RAN offering, while also announcing further equipment contracts with Samsung.

Vodafone said at FYUZ that it was working with Nokia to develop a fully compliant Open RAN solution, claiming that the Finnish firm was the first large Europe-based RAN supplier to support Open RAN in full. The operator said the combination of Nokia’s ReefShark system-on-chip (SoC) technology, co-developed with Marvell, with standard servers, would enable Open RAN system to match the functionality and performance of traditional 5G networks.

Early next year, Vodafone and Nokia plan to demonstrate an Open RAN baseband system with in-line Layer 1 acceleration, to prove the parity with traditional architectures and so encourage wide adoption

Analyst Joe Madden, principal of Mobile Experts, commented: “Purists may complain that this is not truly ‘open vRAN’ because of the use of a Marvell chip for acceleration. The truth is more nuanced, and this step shows that an operator can use a standard off-the shelf server with a commercially available acceleration card to run the vDU and vCU from an unrelated vendor. We count this type of acceleration and collaborative solution as open and virtualized, as long as the acceleration card is available independent of the software vendor.”

There are certainly Open RAN supporters who hoped the technology would greatly increase the choice of equipment vendors, and so will find the rehabilitation of Nokia within Open RAN even harder to digest. A common narrative around Nokia is that it has embraced Open RAN as a way to wrong-foot Ericsson and Huawei and seize the high ground, especially after the problems that beset its first generation 5G RAN launches. Nokia, it is credibly argued, can provide customers with decades of expertise and deployment scale in the RAN, while offering the reassurance of open interfaces, so that if they want to swap for another vendor in future, it will not be the multimillion-dollar, multiyear process that characterize current swap-outs in the macro network.

But in many cases, apathy would prevent such swap-outs; the supply chain would not have diversified; and Nokia would be in a strong position to implement Open RAN in ‘optimized’ ways that would be incompatible with other suppliers’ implementations (the source of all lock-ins within supposedly standardized platforms).

But the decisions by Vodafone and others highlight just how hard it will be for new suppliers to match the expertise of the big OEMs in designing and deploying large-scale RANs.

Not that Vodafone is leaving everything to Nokia. It has strengthened its partnership with Samsung, which already provides equipment for the operator’s initial UK Open RAN projects, in two locations in the west of England. Other vendors in these deployments are Dell for servers, Intel for Xeon processors, and Wind River for cloud-native function management and orchestration. Vodafone will deploy the same technology in two rural areas of Germany, it announced in Madrid.

Vodafone and Samsung are also working together on a project with chip provider Marvell to accelerate Open RAN performance using Marvell’s acceleration technology (see separate item).

Many operators and governments do indeed see Samsung (as well as Japan’s NEC) as a valuable counterweight to Huawei and ZTE, especially in markets where the Chinese vendors have been barred or restricted from 5G deals. Samsung has the size, R&D heft and deployment capability to support tier 1 5G contracts, in a way that small specialists could not. But critics point out that replacing Huawei with Samsung hardly diversifies the RAN supply chain.

Vodafone has set a target of having 30% of its RAN sites across Europe running Open RAN technology by 2030, which director of network architecture (and TIP chair) Yago Tenorio said “means we will need to start deploying at scale in 2025”, and issuing RFPs in 2024.