Telefonica takes next step with Open RAN plan

Telefonica's UK entity moves to field stage of Open RAN plan, first of 800 in four markets?

Virgin Media O2 has said that is turning on its first live, commercial Open RAN sites in the UK. The switch-on marks the field phase of Open RAN trials it has been carrying out with chosen system integrator NEC and radio software supplier Altiostar, now operating under the Rakuten Symphony brand.

Neither company said how many sites are live, although they did say they were brownfield, macro sites. In September 2021, Telefonica said that it would, from 2022, start deploying 800 Open RAN sites in four major global markets, of which the UK is one. This move to a field trial looks to be part of that plan. The company also has a tiny number of Open RAN small cells live as part of a trial in Munich.

NEC has been working to integrate a solution using hardware from KMW (Gigatera), with radio unit chips from Xilinx (now AMD) and a DU operating on Intel chips. Today’s announcement only went as far as name-checking NEC as system integrator and Rakuten Symphony as a partner. Rakuten Symphony is the commerical entity that Rakuten created to market the technology of its aquisitions such as Altiostar and, as well as to act as a platform for partners such as NEC, Netcracker and others.

*UPDATE – Five Sites*

NEC has been in touch with us on both the above points  – the number of sites, and the ecosystem partners involved. It said,“In total there are five sites as part of this deployment”. 

We also asked, for this live stage – have there been any changes from the previously announced eco-system partners – Gigatera/KWM on the RU – Xilinx (AMD) – Intel? NEC replied, “The disaggregated nature of open RAN means that vendors and components can be swapped out at any time.  NEC supports this process by testing and integrating the pre-selected components as the system integrator, as we are doing in this POC.  We are not able to disclose the full list of component vendors at this time.”

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Telefonica and NEC first announced a plan to “industrialise” Open RAN in 2020. Telefonica has also had a strategic co-operation MoU in place with Rakuten for a similar length of time, and the NEC ecosystem mirror’s Rakuten Mobile’s, in many respects. AT the time of that Rakuten MoU announcement, Telefonica CTO Enrique Blanco said that  50% of radio site upgrades would feature open RAN technology between 2022 and 2025.

“We can send a clear message that Open RAN is not a competitive tool, it’s an industry necessity,” Blanco said in 2020, as he repeated the company target that 50% of new RAN sites it deployed between 2022 and 2025 would be based on Open RAN technology. “This is only going one way,” he said at the time.