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15 June 2021

Vodafone looks to Asia and USA for its first Open RAN vendors

Vodafone kicked off the week with the announcement of its first Open RAN suppliers, though the goal of fostering a European ecosystem is clearly still just a goal.

Just as Telecom Italia, in May, selected a US and a Taiwanese vendor for its first Open RAN roll-out, so Vodafone has announced a line-up led by US and Asian partners. It has selected NEC and Samsung for the RAN, Dell for edge infrastructure, Wind River for cloud software and Keysight for interoperability testing, with some European representation from Capgemini Engineering, which will ensure integration and interworking between different vendors’ technologies in the lab.

Samsung will be the reference RAN software provider and will also supply Massive MIMO antennas and radio units. There will also be Massive MIMO equipment from NEC, which designed Rakuten’s 5G Open RAN radio, and additional white box radio units based on Evenstar. The latter’s specifications are designed to enable large numbers of vendors to design compliant radio units, thus lowering barriers to entry and lowering costs.

The virtualized RAN functions will be implemented on Dell EMC PowerEdge servers, which will support a combined distributed unit/centralized unit (DU/CU) running containers-as-a-service (CaaS) software from Wind River Studio. That is the foundation of the distributed cloud-native platform to host the Samsung vRAN and future Open RAN applications. It remains to be seen whether Vodafone will be able to retain the same COTS-based platform for higher performance DUs in future macro Open RAN deployments, which may place very high processing demands on the servers, to support real time RAN functions. Functions will be split between the DU and the radio unit as specified in the O-RAN Alliance 7.2x interface, which requires high quality fiber for x-Haul.

Vodafone’s initial focus will be on the UK (it may select different partners elsewhere). It has pledged to deploy Open RAN in 2,500 sites in the UK and as well as building a RAN on technologies from NEC, Samsung, Dell and Wind River, it also expects to use low cost radio units as defined under Telecom Infra Project’s Evenstar programme to drive radio commoditization. Vodafone has already tested an inhouse Evenstar implementation as part of a recent TIP-sponsored RFI.

From this year, the vendors will work with Vodafone on bringing 4G and 5G coverage to rural areas in south west England and in Wales. Urban deployments will come in a later phase.

Of course, the mobile ecosystem should be a global one, and the selected suppliers all have significant operations in Europe – and will not be the last companies selected by these operators. But the ‘Gang of Five’ European telcos (Deutsche Telekom, Orange, TIM, Telefónica and Vodafone) have placed great emphasis on fostering a European industry enabled by Open RAN, so the lack of local companies in these early selections highlight the immaturity of Europe’s platform compared to those of the USA and Japan.  The obvious exception is Nokia – with Ericsson the main source of Europe’s strength in the conventional mobile industry, and unlike Ericsson a strong supporter of Open RAN. Presumably to choose Nokia for such a high profile early award would not help with operators’ aims of opening up their supply chains.

The choice of partners shows that Vodafone will be focusing its first Open RAN efforts on new sites such as small cells or rural extensions, where it can minimize the issues of backwards compatibility with existing networks. UK telco BT has been vocal about the problems of introducing a new RAN supplier that does not support full coexistence with its 2G networks, which it plans to retain for many years; many operators have invested in 2G/3G/4G/5G SingleRAN architectures which would need to be stripped out well before they paid for themselves, in order to introduce new suppliers throughout the macro network.

For this reason, many operators expect to work with new vendors initially in new networks for enterprises, smart cities, rural areas or new geographies. TIM, when it announced its own partners in April, was careful to say: “The purpose of this activity in 2021 is not a vendor replacement. We are locally replacing the existing 4G network and providing full interoperability with existing neighboring cells in order to cover all the Faenza area with 4G and 5G.” Orange has made similar statements about Open RAN plans not being primarily about replacing its suppliers, though for operators that have Nokia equipment in place, the Finnish firm will certainly be promoting the benefits of sticking with its networks while migrating to Open RAN.

The Vodafone partners will work together initially in the operator’s new Open RAN lab in its headquarters in Newbury, UK, as well as its planned digital skills hubs in Malaga, Spain, and Dresden, Germany. Vodafone said in a statement that it believes the announcement will “spark other large-scale Open RAN launches globally and that commercial Open RAN will diversify the current vendor monopoly on 4G and 5G.”

Group CTO Johan Wibergh said: “Open RAN provides huge advantages for customers. 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. Open RAN is also reinvigorating our industry. It will boost the digital economy by stimulating greater tech innovation from a wider pool of vendors, bringing much needed diversity to the supply chain.”

Vodafone also boasted of planned cost, energy efficiency and security benefits and said Open RAN “will also boost the EU’s global technology leadership by enabling European companies to develop with this emerging market and stimulate greater tech innovation”. Clearly that particular objective is yet to be fulfilled.