Tender is the fight for RAN innovation

Vodafone RAN tender could be example of how to foster open platform innovation.

Vodafone currently has a tender out for a refresh of its base station estate, which it has said is 170,000 base stations, across its European and African operations. The tender has created a stir not just because of its size, but because the operator has hooked it to its Open RAN plans. It says that it wants leverage the tender to bring 30% of its base stations into compliancy with Open RAN specifications.

Now, according to the companies involved, including Vodafone itself, at least one vendor could potentially be going into the process with a new capability. The not-so secret weapon is the integration of new software developed by Cohere Technologies, which Vodafone and Cohere say delivers the ability to extract as much as 1.5-2x capacity gains from cell site spectrum.

Cohere Technologies first trialled its Universal Spectrum Multiplier software in a Deutsche Telekom lab in 2019. At that point it was deployed as an xApp on a VMWare RIC – albeit a “relatively primitive” lab set-up, in the words of CEO Ray Dolan.

Following that, Vodafone went into further trials in the field with Telstra and then with Vodafone, including most recently with Vodafone in Spain’s Cuidad Real, where Vodafone has confirmed that USM, put through its pace in outdoor trials with diferent load and mobility conditions in a dense urban commercial network, showed a 1.5x performance improvement in spectrum efficiency.

Although the trials to date have been developed using the RIC model, with USM as an xApp, in an interview with TMN in at MWC Barcelona, CEO Ray Dolan explained that the company was taking part in trials with one major OEM vendor, backed by Bell Canada and Vodafone, to integrate the software directly onto that vendor’s baseband.

More recently, in a video recorded with Vodafone’s Group Head of Open RAN, Paco Martin, Dolan said that the company was looking to commercialise that direct integration of USM with the vendor baseband in a timescale that aligns with Vodafone’s “Spring 6” RFP – the inside name for the 170k site contract refresh.

As a result of that effort, TMN understands that means that Cohere is now working all out to get a commercially viable integration with that vendor by the fall of this year.

Martin said that “from the beginning” Vodafone’s intention for its support for Open RAN was to encourage innovation, and that Cohere’s USM is a disruption that is a “perfect example” of what it wanted to achieve.

“It’s not a secret that spectrum is a scarce resource and that some of the bands we have are already heavily utilised. So for an operator, seeing the chance to increase capacity almost by magic was something we could not leave behind without exploring,” he said. “A beyond 1.5 increase in capacity is great. We have seen that with multiple users, and we have also tried to ‘break’ the system by increasing the complexity of the scenarios in terms mobility and number of devices.”

In Dolan’s view, such capacity gains could amount to billions of dollars of benefit for operators globally.

Martin said that the next step was to go to a deeper integration with a main RAN vendor, something echoed by Dolan. “The next move is to make this something that’s easier to consume with one of your most trusted vendors,” Dolan said.

“You and your team has been really good at helping us to get engaged with that vendor so that it becomes consumable within the timeframe of your Spring 6 RFP. I’m really glad that Vodafone is partnering with Bell Canada as well as some other vendors to drive the consumability and observability of this. Then we’ll return to some place in your network so confirm that it works so you can make the proper decisions within Spring 6.”

Martin said, “It’s been very important for us to help you in developing the solution so we get the most out of it, and it’s fair to say it can evolve to other scenarios. I think it’s great to work as a target to see in real terms with a big supplier how things go, and we are trying to accelerate it as much as possible because time is of the essence here.”

The obvious two questions are: who is the vendor carrying out the integration, and are other vendors also looking to plug in Cohere’s USM software?

Cohere Technologies itself is remaining tight-lipped. A spokersperson told TMN, “Bell Canada and Vodafone are working jointly with one specific OEM on this POC integration project with Cohere. Results will be shared with other operators.” Again, the identities of those other operators have not been disclosed.

It’s dangerous to speculate but given the use of the term major, established Vodafone vendor, there’s only a lmited number of possible partners that could be working in the Bell Canada/ Vodafone trials. Bell Canada is a strategic investor in Cohere and it would make sense that it would want to leverage that investment for greater efficiency in its own network, within which its announced 5G RAN suppliers are Ericsson and Nokia, in deals dating back to 2020 and 2021. It has also publicised some work with Samsung in mid-band spectrum. Ericsson is also a major Vodafone supplier, of course.

As for what other vendors might be getting their hands on USM. Cohere simply said it cannot comment yet.

One clue could be in the direct integration itself. As Dolan said, the other route to market for USM is for USM to be deployed as an xApp in a near real time RIC. The main vendor that is not committed to the near real time RIC is Ericsson. You could draw a line that, therefore, Ericsson would need a direct integration to access the USM technology. Conversely, other vendors would equally need to integrate directly if Vodafone and other operators are not committed to a near-term adoption of the RIC architecture.

Nothing is certain yet, but if Vodafone and Bell Canada are able to twist the arm of a major vendor to open its basaeband to third party software, then whether you call that Open RAN or not, it’s certainly a result of the pressure that Open RAN is putting on vendors.

Just this morning (18th April), AT&T’s CTO Jeremy Legg said that the vendor’s recent investment with Ericsson, which he described as an investment in Open RAN, would  “open up wireless network to software developers across the world”. That will be a comment that is not lost on the likes of Cohere Technologies.