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11 October 2019

Vodafone pins IoT dumb-pipe fears on OpenRAN progress

A leading UK MNO has become the latest operator to jump onboard the potential life raft that is OpenRAN technology. Vodafone announced Europe’s first large-scale field trial of OpenRAN, in partnership with the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), pioneering an initiative that should lower the cost of 5G deployment and – they hope – keep them competitive.

MNOs are doing all they can to stave off marginalization by cheaper, alternative technologies and services. MNOs have been trembling since the arrival of LPWAN five years ago brought the first legitimate threat to their services. Vodafone’s trial of OpenRAN technology is yet another MNO taking action to ward off becoming a dumb pipe.

OpenRAN makes Network Function Virtualization (NFV) more convenient for MNOs by standardizing Radio Access Networks (RAN) – using general purpose hardware that can be supplied by numerous vendors, without lock-in. The OpenRAN initiative has initially focused on 2G, 3G, and LTE, but is expected to play a big role in 5G.

It will mean that operators can use hardware and software from a variety of sources, rather than traditional RAN component vendors (Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson). These vendors tightly bind their hardware and software so that equipment does not allow easy interoperability between vendors – everything must usually be supplied by one source. By trialing the technology early on, Vodafone is hoping to set itself ahead of its competition.

Details on the OpenRAN trial are slim, but Vodafone has revealed it has found 100 possible locations in rural areas in the UK, one of the more developed mobile markets but one that still suffers in rural connectivity measurements. This is a significant step in Vodafone’s interest in interoperability.

The trial is in partnership with TIP, an association of over 500 member organizations including operators, tech providers, integrators and startups all aiming to reduce the cost of networks through collaborative product development. Vodafone joined TIP in 2017.

Vodafone also announced that it has become the first UK operator to sub-license unused LTE spectrum under pressure from the national regulator, Ofcom. All UK MNOs are now obliged to sub-let unused areas of the spectrum in order to improve coverage of rural and indoor areas in the hope this will drive industrial transformation – part of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) proposal.

While pushing OpenRAN technology sees Vodafone attempting to guide its destiny with R&D, Ofcom’s regulations demonstrate how MNOs can slowly lose their grip on their services – worried about becoming just connectivity providers, or forced to act by an impatient regulator.

Of the OpenRAN trial, Nick Read, CEO of the Vodafone Group said “we are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem. OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind.”

The longevity of Huawei’s place in the cellular market is troubled, amid the current geo-political turmoil. UK MNOs worry that any disruption to Huawei infrastructure in the UK will further reduce competition between mobile network component providers. The main three (Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson) could be whittled down to just two, leaving operators vulnerable. OpenRAN technologies could be the answer to that particular problem.

Vodafone acknowledges on its website that “the global supply of telecom network equipment has become concentrated in a small handful of companies over the past few years. More choice of suppliers will safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers, increase flexibility and innovation and, crucially, can help address some of the cost challenges that are holding back the delivery of internet services to rural communities and remote places across the world.”

The big three equipment giants are split over OpenRAN. Nokia is on board, but Ericsson has joined the rival ORAN Alliance – but has done little since joining according to Mikael Rylander, former Ericsson executive. Separately, Huawei remains firmly outside the circles of TIP or the ORAN Alliance, believing OpenRAN technology is not a viable substitute for its own components.

Vodafone is a major Huawei customer. Pushing the development of OpenRAN technologies gives the company independence from the mercy of Nokia and Ericsson, were Huawei to face a ban. The trial with TIP shows the MNO defying the UK’s market leader in mobile access (4G), where Huawei holds 35% of the market. In pioneering open architecture networks, Vodafone is perhaps making a point that Huawei will not always have a hold on its operations.

Earlier this year, the UK government’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review Report proposed that “greater interoperability and more open interfaces will be required to facilitate new entrants. It is not sufficient that interoperability is included in technical standards – industry must work to ensure equipment from different vendors is interoperable in real world deployments.”

In other OpenRAN developments, TIP recently made breakthroughs regarding the specifications for a Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DSCG) solution. The project involved collaboration with another high-profile open effort, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). Two vendors, Aviat and Metaswitch, have already partnered to develop a cell-site gateway software stack that runs on hardware conforming to the TIP specs.

Vodafone has already rolled out OpenRAN technologies in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique in order to deploy 2G, 3G, and 4G services. OpenRAN is particularly attractive in these countries due to the low cost of deployment. These trials develop on from Vodafone’s Open CrowdCell, a small cell technology in use for cities in Spain and Turkey.

Another possibly misguided press release this week from Vodafone shows the company’s determination not to become a dumb pipe – releasing research suggesting that 5G will drive innovation across the sport world. Their survey of 250 influential figures in the UK sports sector found that 76% plan to use 5G to innovate their services. It remains unclear how – if at all – this will help Vodafone’s core business.

Earlier this year we reported how Vodafone emerged as a backer for Facebook’s Libra Network mobile payment system, tying itself to an emerging industry which MNO’s lost out on. Now that PayPal has pulled its support, it remains to be seen if Libra is dead in the water.