Vodafone to deploy first OpenRAN tech in Europe

Vodafone says now ready to fast track OpenRAN in Europe.

Vodafone has said it will “fast track” adoption of OpenRAN in its European networks as it announced it has “initiated” trials in the UK of radio network technology based on TIP’s OpenRAN initiative. It says these will be the first trials in a “developed” market of OpenRAN equipment.

OpenRAN is an initiative within TIP (Telco Infra Partnership) to build radio access solutions with dis-aggregated and open software running on general purpose hardware. The idea is to ensure interoperability between the different parts of the radio access network, giving operators more vendor flexibility, lower costs and to make it easier for new vendors to break into parts of the RAN market. There is also a 5G NR Group within TIP that is specifically looking at 5G.

Perhaps it is instructive to remember that TIP itself does not issue specifications for specific interfaces, or create a standard. It is more about breaking the RAN into its constituent parts, ensuring software operation of radio protocols on general purpose hardware, and then ensuring interopability between those disaggregated elements.

So you can design within OpenRAN using an O-RAN Alliance fronthaul interface, for example, as long as the elements are open and disaggregated and pass interoperability testing within Facebook’s ecosystem. In fact there has just been a TIP plugfest to test interoperability between vendors in the initiative, a demonstration of which will form part of the upcoming TIP Summit in Amsterdam in November.

The LiveLab will be an “end-to-end network demonstration” of all the TIP projects: OpenRAN, CrowdCell, vRAN Fronthaul, Open Optical & Packet Transport, WiFi, and Edge Application Developer Group. 

One vendor told us in a note, “O-RAN is [more] like 3GPP in that they drive standards. TIP is more deployment oriented, they encourage PlugFests and live deployments in the field.”

Caroline Chan, a TIP board member and President of New Network Incubator Division at Intel, said of TIP, “We never did standards. We are not specs people. We are more doers, putting things together for trials and prototypes. That’s why you see the Ecosystem Accelerators. How do you take the ecosystem of the OTTs and use that to drive the telco side? At the board level O-RAN is very interested in interface specs, defined via their working groups. TIP is really about how do we accelerate, do trials, do pilots.”

Now we will buy software from one vendor and hardware from another.

Vodafone and TIP

The TIP OpenRAN project is co-lead by Vodafone with Intel, so you would expect the operator to be at the forefront of deployments and trial projects.

The operator is working with Parallel Wireless in Turkey to initially replace the existing vendor at 25 urban and rural macro sites with Parallel’s so-called “All G” radio solution – in this case delivering 2G and 4G from the same radio platform over the 900MHz band.

It is also moving to rural commercial trials with Vodacom in DRC, with this trial involving a satellite backhaul element.

Mavenir was also listed as an RFI winner by Vodafone at the TIP Summit in November 2019 and was named as a possible supplier to forthcoming trials, but has not yet released any news of a production network deployment. However, Vodafone has named Mozambique as a location for trials, and as Parallel did not include that country in a recent update on its OpenRAN progress we might assume it is Mavenir that will be involved in Mozambique.

Details of what Vodafone is planning to do in the UK seem harder to come by, with the operator remaining pretty vague in its press release

In a video posted to LinkedIn, Group CTO Johan Wibergh said, “This will be the first time we put into our production mobile network this new technology for building radio base stations.

“Now we will buy software from one vendor and hardware from another. That gives us an interesting possibility to do new innovations and combinations with these products.

“We have been doing trials before in Turkey and South Africa that have gone quite well and now we will be bringing this into DRC and Mozambique – very cost effective radio base stations that will give us the opportunity to give internet access to people that have not had that before. We will also bring the technology into Western Europe. We will start in the UK and introduce [it] in our production network to test how well it is performing and provide great innovative solutions for our customers.”

That suggests that one of the main goals will be to achieve a level of vendor diversity and interoperability, but perhaps with the focus on using the technology to solve specific network problems, or to provide advanced solutions.