Vodafone says Open RAN ready for prime time as Huawei is phased out in the UK

Vodafone has made a major commitment to use Open RAN at about 2,600 mobile base stations currently served by Huawei. That’s about 35% of the Chinese telecom equipment vendor’s installed base within Vodafone’s network, according to a spokesperson for the UK service provider after it was reported by the Financial Times (subscription required).

Approximately 2,600 sites in rural Wales and the south west of England will be switched to OpenRAN by the government-imposed deadline, a process that will commence in 2022. Vodafone wants to be viewed as a trailblazer for OpenRAN, which increasingly looks like the most likely source of telecoms vendor diversity in the wake of Huawei’s blacklisting by the U.S., UK and other countries.

“This commitment can get Open RAN ready for prime time,” Scott Petty, chief technology officer at Vodafone UK, told the Financial Times. He added that although open RAN was still a nascent technology more suited to rural coverage than dense urban areas, including such a large chunk of its network would create an opportunity for it to push into the mainstream. Spanish telecom operator Telefónica is also exploring greater use of open RAN systems for future upgrades.

Vodafone’s plan represents a boost for the UK government, after a task force launched to help strip Huawei equipment out of the country’s 5G networks by 2027 identified open RAN as a potential growth opportunity for the UK. It could also support a government ambition to rebuild a foothold in the telecoms equipment market if growing Open RAN use is used to justify research and development subsidies and companies in the field based themselves in Britain.

“The UK could regain a foothold which it hasn’t had since the break-up of Marconi,” said Mr Petty, referring to the collapsed British telco. Recommended Huawei Technologies Huawei develops plan for chip plant to help beat US sanctions US companies Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar have emerged as open RAN specialists in recent years, hoping to compete with larger companies, while hardware vendors like Samsung, NEC and Fujitsu are hoping to win market share as Huawei kit is removed. The move to ban Huawei, the world’s biggest telecoms equipment maker, from 5G networks has meant networks have turned to Ericsson and Nokia to fill the void.

BT has signed deals with both the Ericsson and Nokia to replace Huawei base stations over time, putting the cost of complying with the government phase out at £500m. Ian Livingston, the former BT chief executive and trade minister heading up the government’s telecoms task force, told MPs last week that the push to foster Open RAN would grant telecoms companies a greater choice of vendors in the wake of the Huawei ban and avoid a bottleneck in the supply chain. Using Open RAN is a more costly exercise which has led to some calls within the industry for more financial support. Mr Petty said this need not be in the form of direct subsidies to use the equipment but could be directed at speeding up the development of chips and software to compete with established companies such as Huawei.

Vodafone’s pledge to use emerging open RAN tech for at least 2,600 masts and rooftops is the largest confirmed promise made by a European carrier © Alamy Stock Photo

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Analysis & Opinion:

Vodafone is likely interested in Open RAN because that could boost supplier diversity in a market where there are currently few viable alternatives to the giant kit vendors. Trials in various geographies have already been carried out with Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, two U.S. developers of Open RAN software.  Many telecom operators have complained that today’s systems force them to rely on one company for all the RAN technologies at a particular site. Thanks to other “virtualization” schemes, they would be able to run open RAN software on commoditized, general-purpose equipment.

Vodafone hasn’t named any of the vendors that will help it with this initiative. Telecoms.com was told that it’s committing a fair bit to OpenRAN R&D and that it definitely sees a significant role for the technology across its entire radio estate. It seems the UK government has actually been of some help in this matter too, with the creation of a taskforce charged with improving vendor diversity considered a step in the right direction.

Vodafone seems to be trying to set the agenda when it comes to emerging technology trends. For years it promoted NB-IoT, but it’s been silent on that LPWAN (for IoT) lately. OpenRAN suffers from the classic paradox of new technologies in that companies are reluctant to invest much in being first movers.  Vodafone is putting its money where its mouth is regarding OpenRAN and it will be watched closely by other operators looking for reassurance before deploying this untested technology.

Vodafone is under pressure to comply with a government deadline for the removal of all Huawei’s 5G products by the end of 2027. This would be fairly straightforward with mainstream technologies from Ericsson and Nokia. Using open RAN as a substitute, even across only 35% of these sites in rural areas, may be tough.

The payoff for Open RAN is a much larger choice of telecom equipment and software vendors. That might even include UK firms, which have not featured in the network equipment sector since the days of Marconi, eventually bought by Ericsson in 2006. Lime Microsystems, based in the UK town of Guildford, is one player that might benefit. It is already supplying 4G equipment to a Vodafone site in Wales that was supposed to be used during this year’s Royal Welsh Show, an agricultural event canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Japan’s Rakuten Mobile and U.S. based Dish Network have already made significant open RAN commitments. Yet both of those companies are building their networks from scratch as greenfield wireless carriers. With today’s update, Vodafone is taking a bigger step into the unknown than any other brownfield telco in a developed market has taken, including Telefonica.

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References:

https://www.ft.com/content/a872a299-2f49-45b3-b3ff-9200f6ce8247

https://www.lightreading.com/vodafone-uk-to-swap-big-part-of-huawei-for-open-ran/d/d-id/765104?

Vodafone UK bets the farm on OpenRAN

 

2 thoughts on “Vodafone says Open RAN ready for prime time as Huawei is phased out in the UK

  1. T-Mobile’s top networking executive offered a decidedly tepid outlook on open RAN technology:

    “It’s not ready for prime time for us,” said T-Mobile’s Neville Ray at an investor event Tuesday. “For us, I know the fastest and quickest and most meaningful way I can roll out a 5G network at real pace is what we’re doing today. I’m not going to go and chase a bunch of capital efficiencies which I’m not sure exist at this point.”

    https://www.lightreading.com/open-ran/t-mobiles-network-chief-pours-cool-but-not-cold-water-on-o-ran/d/d-id/765518?
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    Also see: https://techblog.comsoc.org/2020/11/15/bank-of-america-openran-primer-with-global-5g-implications/

  2. John Strand of Strand Consult:

    The reality check on OpenRAN

    In 2020 OpenRAN was portrayed as a miracle “technology”. Many believe OpenRAN will increase innovation, reduce operators’ costs, and help rid Chinese equipment in telecommunications networks. Other OpenRAN boosters want more nations to become manufactures of telecommunications infrastructure.

    2021 will bring a needed reality check. It will take years before OpenRAN can replace regular RAN on a 1:1 basis. Promised savings for operators will not be so great, and the purported openness of the solution will not necessarily deliver security, at least in the expectation of OpenRAN reducing reliance on Chinese vendors. China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom are among some 44 Chinese government technology companies in the O-RAN Alliance. Other members are ZTE and Inspur, which the US bans because of links to the Chinese military. While purporting to offer the way out from Huawei, O-RAN appears to substitute one Chinese government owned firm for another, like Lenovo. OpenRAN specifications may already violate cybersecurity rules in UK, Germany and France. Patent challenges are also likely as OpenRAN is 100% dependent on 3GPP and the patents of non-members of the O-RAN Alliance.

    Strand Consult believes that industrial cooperation is important for technological development, investment, and innovation. Some of this cooperation is done in 3GPP, the O-RAN Alliance, and other organizations. Mobile operators should be free to choose the technological solutions that make sense for their business, provided the adherence to national security laws. OpenRAN should not be the justification for protectionism.

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