Vodafone sees itself touting open RAN, globally

In his position as head of open RAN at Vodafone Group, Francisco Martin Pignatelli oversees a large team spread across multiple countries that focuses on “working with the different suppliers” to make open radio access network (RAN) technology happen.

Speaking during a Talking Telecoms Week panel, Pignatelli also highlighted that open RAN is “a lot about collaboration,” and said large telecom groups such as Vodafone have “both the responsibility and the opportunity” to help smaller operators “get on to the open RAN journey.”

He made it clear that Vodafone intends to play a pivotal role in spreading the open RAN word and helping others to get on board. “We are getting calls and supporting operators across the globe. And this is an area where if we don’t do it, there is nobody there to do it”, he said, referring to the top 20 or so global operators.

“We need to somehow support between ourselves. There are over 500 operators in the world. Not everybody has the opportunity to invest, creating labs, creating teams to work on open RAN,” he added. 

He echoed recent comments by Andrea Dona, chief network officer with Vodafone UK, about the group’s flagship open RAN deployment in the United Kingdom. Speaking at Fyuz, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) event in Madrid, Spain, Dona said the open RAN work in the U.K. is a “blueprint for success” and that Vodafone can “lift and shift” it to other parts of its global footprint.

Pignatelli said support can be provided in areas such as strategy development, open RAN interoperability testing, design, “or even ultimately, in the actual implementation. There will be system integrators doing that, but I think we the operators will have an important role in that as well.”

U.K. setting the pace

In the U.K., Vodafone has deployed 22 sites in the towns of Torquay and Exeter in England and is deploying seven more sites by the end of this month. During Fyuz, Vodafone director of network architecture Santiago Tenorio said Vodafone UK is on track with its goal to deploy 2,500 open RAN sites and will issue a request for quotes for open RAN technology across its entire global footprint, which is 170,000 sites.

“We are extremely happy with this project,” Pignatelli said. “We are comparing KPIs of the network, with the previous setup, the previous incumbent supplier, and performance is really going well. And we decided to go into the full deployment.”

In the next few months, this will require a heightened focus on automation as the U.K. open RAN rollout scales up. “If you still have a few sites, it’s not very relevant. But now it’s becoming more and more an area to improve. We think open RAN has a lot to deliver in that space, pure automation for getting new sites live or changing software, things like that,” he said.

Pignatelli said other components such as the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) “can enable or unlock opportunities with applications running to the radio itself.”

RIC is a software that leverages AI/ML to help automate the RAN and maximize network efficiency. In addition, the RIC can run applications developed by third-party specialist software providers, known as “xApps” and “rApps,” which are now available for operators to implement on their real and near-real time RICs.

“RIC is one of the key components,” Pignatelli said. “RIC has two roles in a way. One is the natural evolution of the self-optimizing network … [and another is] the opportunity for new business models, for new applications in terms of the scope of them, because you can go for real-time implementations. So in that sense, it is not an evolution, it is more a revolution. And we still need to see how big this will be. But we are very encouraged to see the initial results,” he commented. 

In terms of the next steps, he said the first task will be to deliver on the initial expectations for open RAN, “which is having technology that allows for faster innovation” at a lower cost. In terms of the RIC, the aim is to have new applications “that unlock a lot of value.”

Plug and play

Pignatelli was joined on the panel by two of Vodafone’s open RAN vendor partners, Juniper Networks and Wind River. 

With Juniper Networks, for instance, Vodafone has trialed admission control and traffic steering applications running on top of the Juniper RIC platform, also in collaboration with Parallel Wireless. Wind River, meanwhile, is one of the suppliers for the U.K. deployment, along with Samsung, Dell Technologies, NEC, Capgemini Engineering and Keysight Technologies.

Nicola Marziliano, VP international telco sales at Wind River, stressed that open RAN is still at a very early phase, accounting for about 6% of all global RAN. He sees the tipping point in 2024, with adoption then scaling up in 2025. He also cited recent findings from Dell’ Oro Group, which previously forecast that open RAN will comprise 15% to 20% of the market by 2027.

In terms of the RIC, Constantine Polychronopoulos, group VP of 5G and telco cloud at Juniper Networks, echoed recent comments by Richard MacKenzie, distinguished engineer in Wireless Networks at BT, by saying that managing the conflicting objectives of xApps and rApps is “going to be one of the more tricky parts, where AI can also help.”

Both Marziliano and Polychronopoulos agreed that, despite open RAN’s promise of a disaggregated, multi-vendor network architecture, some level of standardized, pre-integrated and pre-validated capabilities will be required in order to ease adoption and address the total cost of ownership. 

“The long term goal is plug and play … we want to bring the flexibility of the enterprise to the telco infrastructure,” Polychronopoulos said.