Vodafone initiates first open RAN trials in the U.K., challenging traditional vendors

Vodafone announced it’s started open RAN trials in the U.K., marking the first such tests in Europe and a move that could put major telecom equipment vendors Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia in the crosshairs.

In its announcement, Vodafone said open radio access network (RAN) technology helps reduce the cost of providing services, and also made clear the effort aims to bring new equipment vendors outside of the traditional players into the fold.

“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,” said Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read in a statement.

Globally, options for telecom network equipment suppliers “has become concentrated in a small handful of companies over the past few years,” the company said, adding that “more choice of suppliers will safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers, increase flexibility and innovation,” and help reduce cost barriers to delivering internet service to rural and remote communities.  

Vodafone is working with new suppliers for open RAN technology, including U.S.-based Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.

RELATED: Parallel Wireless scores Open RAN deal with Cellcom

Open RAN standardizes the design and functionality of RAN hardware and software, and Vodafone since 2017 has been leading efforts within the Telecom Infra Project (TIP)’s OpenRAN initiative on approaches to building and deploying the technology.  

By separating out certain elements of telecom networks with open RAN technology, operators can mix and match gear from different equipment vendors, avoiding vendor lock-in.   

In addition to TIP efforts, groups like the O-RAN Alliance have sprung up, which was formed in 2018 by major operators including AT&T, China Mobile and Deutsche Telekom. Interestingly, major equipment vendor Nokia has previously said open source is very much a part of its overall strategy, and has been at the forefront of advocating for virtual RANs. Earlier this year Ericsson joined the O-RAN Alliance, with plans to focus on open interworking between RAN and network orchestration and automation.

Still open RAN could potentially loosen the grip of the global telecom equipment vendors, opening the door for smaller players like Parallel Wireless and Mavenir, which both have been heavily involved in promoting the technology.

RELATED: Mavenir makes name for itself driving open RAN efforts

According to a mobile operator survey by Senza Fili, conducted for Mavenir, 43% of respondents would consider replacing their current equipment vendors when deploying an open RAN architecture.

When it comes to deploying open RAN 4G and 5G macro networks with non-incumbent RAN vendors, 68% said they would consider doing so in a scenario where they were densifying or extending coverage, 47% said new greenfield deployments for urban and suburban deployments, and 42% said they would consider doing so in the case of replacing incumbents. According to the survey, a quarter of respondents named cost savings as a reason to consider multiple vendors, and 84% of operators said they’ll consider deploying remote radio units (RRUs) and baseband units (BBUs) from different vendors in open RAN deployments.

RELATED: Nokia takes 5G cloud RAN live, works to convert vRAN skeptics

More Vodafone open RAN trials

In addition to the U.K., Vodafone has also started open RAN trials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, to bring mobile voice and data services to more consumers in largely rural areas. Vodafone said trial sites in the three countries will provide 2G, 3G, and 4G services, with the potential for 5G using open RAN later on.

The company has already performed OpenRAN lab trials in South Africa, and deployed the technology in Turkey to deliver 2G and 4G services in both rural and urban areas of the country.

Parallel Wireless on Monday announced that it's participating in the trials in Turkey and DRC, with Vodafone deploying Parallel’s cloud-native fully virtualized open RAN solution.

The company’s OpenRAN offering disaggregates hardware and software to help ease deployments and reduce installation costs, as well as maintenance and future technology upgrades, that could reduce OPEX by up to a third, according to Parallel Wireless. The company said it’s the only solution that simultaneously delivers all three RAN technologies (2G, 3G, 4G/LTE) to customers.  

RELATED: Small Cell Forum publishes spec for unified 5G open RAN

Parallel Wireless’s software uses standards-based and open interfaces between network components for an open RAN architecture. In Turkey, the company’s base stations enabled Vodafone to replace legacy 2G systems with virtualized 2G technology, and run 2G and 4G on the same base station at the same time. Customers in the DRC will receive 2G and 3G service from the same base station simultaneously.

"We are committed to our role in innovating in the OpenRAN ecosystem to help eliminate the digital divide,” said Lux Maharaj, Director of Africa Sales at Parallel Wireless, in a statement. “By decoupling the programmable RAN software from the hardware and allowing it to run on general-purpose processing platforms, Parallel Wireless enables cloud native architectures, providing greater flexibility for operators. As a result, the costs associated with building or modernizing mobile networks are reduced and connectivity can be brought to every single person in the world."

In addition to Vodafone, Telefónica last year also named Parallel Wireless and Mavenir as vendors in pilot OpenRAN deployments.