Vodafone turns on first U.K. 5G open RAN site

Vodafone has turned on the first live 5G open RAN site in the U.K., as the operator plans to deploy 2,500 across 4G and 5G technologies by 2027.

Vodafone on Wednesday claimed a few firsts including the start of the first scaled open RAN project in Europe and the first time O-RAN technology has been deployed on a macro site in the U.K. to carry live customer traffic.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter for the mobile industry. Our team has been working tirelessly to take OpenRAN technology from a theory in our lab to our customers in the real world – it’s remarkable how much has been achieved in such a short period of time,” said Vodafone chief network officer Andrea Dona, in a press release. “OpenRAN as a concept is only five years old, and we’re already fundamentally changing how we deploy connectivity infrastructure.”

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

To mark the milestone, Dona performed a video call earlier this month with U.K. Minister of Digital Infrastructure Julia Lopez. It was the first to have 5G video traffic carried over open RAN infrastructure, with the site located in Bath, England.

The U.K. government has put some backing behind open RAN, including a commitment in December to invest £250 million ($331 million) to support the technology. It’s part of the government target for 35% of U.K. mobile traffic to be carried over open RAN architectures by 2030. However, the U.K. stopped short of mandating open RAN technology, acknowledging operators are already busy working to implement decisions around replacing telecom equipment from vendors deemed high-risk, such as China’s Huawei and ZTE.

RELATED: 5 major European telcos urge fast action on Open RAN

Vodafone has been an early proponent of open RAN and highlighted the feature of enabling separation of software from hardware, with the promise of mixing and matching components instead of buying an entire solution from one supplier.

In a video of the launch Dona talked up the open RAN benefit of introducing new suppliers and avoiding vendor lock-in.

“Open RAN is super important for the telecommunications industry because it breaks our reliance on having a single vendor for each component of the technology in the telecommunications chain, sparking a much needed innovation disruption that brings a lot more diversity in our supply chain and also resilience in our network infrastructure,” Dona said.

To that end, partners are a key part of the 5G open RAN launch.

Open RAN vendor partners

Vodafone named suppliers for its wide-scale open RAN project last year. The first 5G site was delivered with vendors Samsung, Wind River, Dell, Intel, Keysight Technologies and Capgemini Engineering.

South Korea’s Samsung is providing the virtualized RAN (vRAN) piece, along with technical, product and integration support and touted the deployment.

The U.K. deployment marks a push for Samsung into Europe as the vendor works to challenge traditional heavy hitters like Ericsson and Nokia as well as newer entrants enabled by open RAN.

Samsung has made more of a name for itself in the infrastructure space, with wins in early 5G markets including domestically in South Korea as well as with operators KDDI and NTT Docomo in Japan. And it’s gained prominence as a key RAN supplier for Verizon’s network in the U.S., where its vRAN gear is commercially deployed and the carrier today launched C-band including Samsung 5G massive MIMO radios.

RELATED: Verizon, Samsung fire up 5G vRAN trial with Massive MIMO on C-band

In Europe Samsung also is participating in Orange’s Open RAN Integration center in Paris and conducting 4G and 5G trials with Virgin Media’s O2.

Thomas Riedel, head of Samsung Networks Europe, in a statement said the vendor was proud to collaborate with Vodafone on the U.K.’s first 5G open RAN site.

“This will help deliver the benefits of our carrier-grade 5G vRAN solutions to millions of Vodafone UK customers,” Riedel said. “Through our accumulated commercial 5G vRAN experience with leading operators across major markets globally, we look forward to pushing the boundaries of technological innovation and supporting the 5G journey across Europe.”

RELATED: BT, Orange like open RAN for private networks before macro

In the coming months Samsung said Vodafone will be testing its vRAN telco-grade performance metrics and features like security, inter-Radio Access Technology (inter-RAT) mobility and inter-frequency handover. It will also ensure compliance with O-RAN specifications. Also in the first half of 2022, the partners will test dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) and E-UTRAN New Radio Dual Connectivity (EN-DC). The latter helps boost speeds, reliability and coverage by aggregating resources of 4G and 5G networks.

As for other partners on the first site installation, Vodafone will deploy open hardware servers from Dell and Xeon processors from Intel alongside technologies to enable workload acceleration and connectivity. Wind River is providing its Studio platform to manage containerized open RAN CU/DU workloads, automation, orchestration and network functions lifecycle management.

RELATED: Vodafone taps VMware platform for 5G core networks across Europe

Capgemini and Keysight delivered testing and integration services ahead of time in the Vodafone lab to ensure interoperability. The operator noted that having technologies and vendors verified for O-RAN compliance makes it much simpler to deploy equipment.

Notably absent from the first U.K. 5G open RAN site - antennas. 4G and 5G antennas are being supplied by Samsung and NEC but won’t be deployed until starting in mid-2022, according to the announcement. Vodafone said it still needs to complete interoperability lab tests for the radio units, after which they can be deployed in a “plug and play” way on existing open RAN infrastructure.