Four European operators have signed an MoU re-affirming their commitment to Open RAN, with the aim of boosting the European Open RAN ecosystem.
Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica and Vodafone released a joint statement calling for national governments and the European Commission to focus investment so that European companies can bring Open RAN products and software to market.
Olivier Simon, SVP, Radio Networks Orange, told TMN that the aim is to clarify the operators’ intentions with respect to Open RAN to boost the ecosystem, especially in Europe. “This MoU should reinforce that this Open RAN sector is very powerful, helping to trigger government funding and private investment in the sector, especially in the early days when some companies need a push to enter this market.”
Simon said that the MoU contains a clear commitment from all the signatories to recognise Open RAN as the technology of choice. Individually, the operators will also define roadmaps towards Open RAN adoption. The operators have also committed to keep up their contributions with existing industry bodies like the O-RAN ALLIANCE and the Telecom Infra Project.
Simon said that strategically, European operators would benefit from having closer proximity to developers of Open RAN network hardware and software. Companies from the USA and Japan have so far taken the lead, he said.
“Currently we think we need more strength in the European ecosystem and this MoU is a tool to accelerate that ecosystem development.” The operators are asking authorities to steer R&D funding towards supporting Open RAN labs and test centres that would enable European companies to test and develop software and hardware elements. That could mean growth of new, smaller companies in the continent.
Johann Wibergh, Vodafone CEO, said, “We aim to open R&D labs for new, smaller suppliers to develop their products. But to do this we need a supportive investment environment and political backing, and we urge European governments to join us in creating the Open RAN ecosystem.”
Simon said that the operators will work to convince authorities that the technology has very important benefits to customers and that funding is necessary to close the gap to companies from Japan and the USA. The MoU defines actions to work with national governments and the EC to push for some trials and early deployments. The operators also committed to contribute as much as possible the O-RAN Alliance to bring Open RAN up to parity with integrated systems in performance and in areas such as massive MIMO.
“We think that the gap can be filled in two to three years,” Simon said.
Simon said that Orange will use Open RAN initially in rural, indoor and private networks, as it is not mature enough yet for urban environments and to support massive MIMO. It is working currently on testing open fronthaul and on deploying the required accelerators in the infrastructure domain to support high throughput and massive MIMO. By 2025 it expects all new equipment in Europe will be O-RAN compliant.
Europe’s Open RAN sector
Europe is not without companies working in Open RAN. Nokia and Ericsson are both among the top five contributors to the O-RAN Alliance, with Nokia committed to new radio products, and Ericsson interested in the upper layer, non-real time Radio Intelligent Controller element. Radio company Benetel is developing O-RAN compliant Radio Units. Chip company Picocom is based in the UK, with Chinese ownership, and is targeting O-RAN compliant chip solutions. Simon mentioned AW2S, a French company developing radio units. In the software area, CapGemini’s ownership of Altran also gives it a position in the market.
There’s no doubt that US-headquartered companies such as Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless have taken a lead in vRAN software, while Radio Unit development has been led by South Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese manufacturers, with some exceptions. Open RAN offers up the potential for a more componentised market, with opportunities in software that can sit on the RIC elements, and for specialised and dedicated silicon solutions. Major companies such as Intel Qualcomm, Marvell and Nvidia have also targeted the production of chip technology designed to support vRAN elements that sit within an Open RAN architecture.
Since publication, the text of the MoU itself has been made public.
The notable points are that the operators commit to produce a “Technical Priorities” document within three months, and an “Action Plan” within six.
The document says that the signatories individually commit that OPEN RAN will be the technology of choice for RAN. They also commit to “Readiness” for initial (limited) commercial deployments 2021, and readiness for Network Wide Rollout from 2022. These rollouts will be carried out with technology conforming to R1 O-RAN specifications, with “first level” interoperability.