Vodafone hopes to avoid open RAN Catch-22, launches U.K. lab

Vodafone is launching a lab to propel open RAN development, as the mobile operator’s network chief hopes to avoid a Catch-22 situation.

The U.K. operator has been a vocal advocate for open radio access network architecture (open RAN) and wants to ensure products live up to the promise. Located on its Newbury headquarter's campus, Vodafone’s new R&D lab aims to help open RAN vendors refine products and enter the market more easily.

“We want to avoid a Catch-22 situation, where operators wait to buy perfect products, but the OpenRAN vendors need investment to perfect their products,” said Vodafone UK Chief Network Officer Andrea Donà in a statement. “This is why we are announcing this investment in a new R&D lab, as well as committing to 2,500 OpenRAN sites in the U.K. countryside."

Testing and validation are a key focus, with 30 engineers initially set to provide hands-on assistance.

RELATED: Vodafone Ireland deploys open RAN tech at 30 sites

The effort received praise from UK Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman.

“Vodafone is paving the way in building mobile networks with a variety of different equipment suppliers and its Newbury facility will put the UK at the forefront of the telecoms revolution – creating new jobs and opportunities for other firms,” Warman stated.

The U.K. government set aside £250m (about $345 million) as part of the country’s 5G Diversification Strategy. Announced last fall after the U.K. decision to remove Huawei gear from 5G network, the 5G strategy counts three core focuses: supporting incumbent suppliers; attracting new suppliers in the U.K. market; and accelerating the development and deployment of open-interface solutions.

A February report (PDF) from the UK Science and Technology Committee warned that the strategy lacked clear milestones and that open RAN didn’t guarantee success. The committee recommended a more detailed action plan and breakdown of the budget, as well as clear milestones and timeframes for achieving the U.K. government’s goals.

RELATED: Mavenir, Xilinx team up on open RAN massive MIMO

Vodafone’s lab looks to target one direct proposal of the strategy, which included establishing a U.K.-wide R&D ecosystem “to accelerate and pull forward the development of interoperable technologies, including a major Open RAN trial in the UK.”

Open RAN benefits Vodafone is touting include vendor diversity, increased competition and innovation, and improviing environmental impact by optimizing specific elements in the RAN supply chain.

More time- and cost-efficient upgrades are also part of the appeal, with a focus on software-defined operations with vendor agnostic and interoperable network components.

The shift to open RAN will allow Vodafone to dedicate more resource and investment in software development, the operator noted.

“OpenRAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition, and carbon savings. But we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem,” Donà added. 

RELATED: Vodafone turns on standalone 5G network in Germany

In January, Vodafone teamed up with other major operators Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefónica to commit to implementing and deploying open RAN for 5G. Dish Network is pursuing a greenfield 5G build in the U.S. focused on open RAN architecture.

And Texas-based Mavenir just scored a $500 million investment from Koch Strategic Platforms, which took a minority stake in the open RAN software vendor.