Vodafone turns on UK’s first live 4G OpenRAN site

Vodafone marked a milestone on Thursday as the first mobile operator to turn on a live Open Radio Access Network (OpenRAN) 4G site in the U.K., with help from U.S.-based vendor Mavenir.  

The site was switched on in a rural area, at the Royal Welsh Showground in Powys, Wales, to provide better connectivity for both the showground and the wider community.  

Mavenir supplied its 4G/5G OpenRAN software, which is 5G compatible but only supports 4G at the site today.

The architecture is based on a remote radio unit (RRU), distributed unit (DU), and centralized unit (CU), according to John Baker, SVP at Mavenir. The RRU and DU are located at the cell site, while the CU is more than 180 miles away, he noted.

“This is a further step in developing the OpenRAN and Network Virtualization principles with Vodafone,” Baker told Fierce via email.  “Mavenir has had a long supply relationship with Vodafone and this is demonstrating our joint efforts in pioneering OpenRAN.”

RELATED: Vodafone initiates first open RAN trials in the U.K.

Some benefits Vodafone called out include lower costs and increased flexibility for deployments to help roll out services faster and to more rural locations.

The operator didn’t detail expansion plans, other than it’s working to identify other communities in the UK where it can const-effectively introduce voice and high-speed data using OpenRAN.

A lot of attention is paid to 5G network deployments, but Vodafone is first focused on 4G for open RAN. It had been testing 4G-only lab units, saying that made the most sense from an engineering perspective.

“You have to walk before you can run as the old saying goes,” said Daniel Shannon, one of Vodafone UK’s specialist design experts, in a June post detailing the operator’s view of OpenRAN.

“As 4G networks carry less data and support fewer simultaneous handset connections than 5G networks, it makes sense to design, test and trial OpenRAN for those less demanding 4G networks first.”

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With open RAN, mobile site capabilities are hosted via software in the cloud with low-cost hardware at the site, Vodafone noted.

The operator emphasized open RAN enables it to introduce more vendors into mobile networks, and not lean as heavily on traditional players. 

“This new approach has the ability to make us less dependent on current larger technology suppliers, and find ways to reduce the cost of rolling out mobile coverage,” said Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK, in a statement. “OpenRAN can also help close the digital divide between urban and rural Britain.”

Major telecom equipment vendors Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia largely dominate the RAN market, historically with highly customized gear that doesn’t always play nice with elements from other suppliers. However, Nokia and Ericsson have each signed on to industry initiatives and signaled more support for Open RAN.

Amid U.S. pressure over security concerns, the British government last month changed course and decided on a complete ban of Huawei gear from U.K. 5G networks, affecting Vodafone UK.

Even before Huawei became a concern, mobile providers had signaled desire for more choices, and Vodafone was early to push for and pursue an open RAN approach.

It’s led the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) OpenRAN working group since 2017 to help define standards. In 2019 Vodafone issued a request for quotes (RFQ) for open RAN technology across its European footprint and initiated trials in the U.K. last October.

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In terms of open RAN, Mavenir has become one of the more familiar U.S. names, alongside Altiostar and Parallel Wireless and others. It’s active in the O-RAN Alliance, the recently formed Open RAN Policy Coalition, and TIP.

Mavenir was one of numerous suppliers that worked with Rakuten Mobile on its fully virtualized open 4G network in Japan, which launched commercially in April.  

In the U.S., the vendor’s been tapped by Dish Network for its forthcoming nationwide 5G network. Dish plans to use an open RAN architecture for the greenfield wireless build.

This summer Altiostar and Mavenir said they’d team up to create a portfolio of radios based on open RAN interfaces for the U.S. wireless market.