Vodafone ramps open RAN efforts in Europe with Nokia

Vodafone, an early adopter of open radio access network (RAN), made a bevy of announcements as the industry convened this week in Madrid, Spain.

The FYUZ22 trade show, which involved both the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), provided the chance for Vodafone to highlight the work it's doing with the likes of Samsung, Marvell, Qualcomm and NTT DoCoMo, among others.

But it was its deal with Nokia that represented what Vodafone called a major milestone for the mobile industry. Vodafone said it’s working with Nokia to develop a fully compliant open RAN solution to boost its competitiveness in Europe.

In a press release, Vodafone said Nokia is the first large European-based RAN equipment supplier to fully support open RAN. Its partnership with Nokia will help Vodafone, which operates mobile and fixed networks in 21 countries, to meet its public target of having 30% of its European networks running on open RAN by 2030.

Vodafone said the combination of Nokia’s ReefShark advanced System on Chip (SoC) technology, developed in cooperation with Marvell, with standard Commercial-Off-the-Shelf (COTS) servers will enable the open RAN system to reach functionality and performance parity with traditional mobile radio networks. 

Early next year Vodafone and Nokia aim to demonstrate an open RAN baseband system, which processes customer mobile traffic, using in-line Layer-1 acceleration, in a step toward wider open RAN adoption.

“I’m delighted to see Nokia’s commitment to the club and I’m sure together we will maintain the flow of innovation in Europe,” said Vodafone CTO Johan Wibergh in a statement.

Nokia’s involvement in open RAN often raises questions from smaller vendors who question how much is open and how much is Nokia’s interpretation of it.

The impetus for open RAN is largely about getting more competition from a variety of vendors and getting rid of the vendor lock-in associated with Ericsson and Nokia. The big infrastructure vendors initially pushed back against open RAN, which threatens profits from their proprietary products, but Nokia eventually came around, more so than Ericsson, in terms of how much it’s backing open RAN.

In the U.S., Joe Madden, principal of Mobile Experts, emceed the Brooklyn 6G Summit in New York this week. The event is organized by Nokia and the NYU Wireless research center; Nokia CEO Pekka Lundmark and Nokia Chief Strategy and Technology Officer Nishant Batra spoke at event's opening. 

Asked about Vodafone’s agreement with Nokia, Madden said Nokia has shown its commitment to open RAN on multiple fronts.

“The collaboration of Vodafone, Nokia, and Marvell represents a step toward open RAN,” Madden told Fierce. “Purists may complain that this is not truly ‘open vRAN’ because of the use of a Marvell chip for acceleration. The truth is more nuanced, and this step shows that an operator can use a standard off-the shelf server with a commercially available acceleration card to run the vDU and vCU from an unrelated vendor.”

In Mobile Experts’ forecast, “we count this type of acceleration and collaborative solution as open and virtualized, as long as the acceleration card is available independent of the software vendor,” he said.

He said Nokia has fully embraced open RAN and shown that commitment in their support of multiple projects. “Essentially, they are betting that they can gain more than they will lose in an open environment, drawing on their economy of scale and their expertise,” he said.

Ericsson has been more reluctant to make the same bet in the major established networks, he added. “Over the longer term, I believe that all of the telecom equipment vendors will support open RAN in different ways, and at different levels,” he said, noting Mobile Experts’ recently published forecast showing significant growth in open RAN software, with major differences between the telco market and the private 5G market.