• Group signs MoU with Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica.
  • Aim is to generate greater economies of scale for smaller suppliers through common procurement parameters.
  • Lobbying European governments for open RAN funding high on the agenda.

Vodafone ties with Euro peers in bid to scale open RAN

Vodafone ties with Euro peers in bid to scale open RAN

Source: Benjamin Child / Unsplash

In another signal to suppliers that they are serious about open radio access networks (open RAN), Vodafone and three other European operator heavyweights joined forces to promote the nascent tech.

In a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica, the four pledged to work together with “existing and new ecosystem partners”, as well as industry bodies  O‑RAN Alliance and the Facebook‑backed Telecom Infra Project (TIP) were name‑checked  and European policy makers.

The idea is to achieve “early economies of scale”, and “ensure openRAN quickly reaches competitive parity with traditional RAN solutions” for deployment across the European network footprint of each signatory.

Common procurement strategy

The MoU, as way of background, claimed that its signatories were already “individually promoting” a strong competitive European industrial and manufacturing base for open RAN. Going forward, however, in a bid to generate more attractive economies of scale for smaller suppliers, the four have pledged to support the inclusion of “common” open RAN architecture, requirements, and specifications in their respective procurement processes for commercial deployment.

Each signatory is apparently anxious to encourage more competition in the supply of various open RAN components, including hardware and software related to open distributed units and open centralised units, RAN intelligent controllers, and service management and orchestration. Chipsets and system integration are other areas in which the four operators want to see more competition.

Standardisation work, as the MoU makes clear, will still be the preserve of industry bodies. The O‑RAN Alliance, repeatedly referenced in the MoU documentation, is seen as key here.

Other activities planned by the grouping, as agreed in the MoU, include to:

  • Promote to European policy makers and industry that adopting a competitive open RAN ecosystem will “place Europe and European industry at the front in the race of technological leadership”.
  • Seek funding from European governments to support and develop the open RAN ecosystem on things such as early deployments, R&D activities and test labs, and encouragement of European suppliers and startups.
  • Exchange testing best practices and lessons learnt, either after tests or deployments.

The MoU comes into operation when signed by the “authorised representatives” of the founding members. This date, as far as Vodafonewatch can tell, has not yet been set. The current MoU runs until 31 December 2024, from the “effective date”, although this term can be extended by mutual agreement of the signatories.

We need government help

Johan Wibergh, Vodafone Group Chief Technology Officer (CTO), enthusiastically welcomed the four‑way collaboration. “We remain committed to rolling out our openRAN programme across Europe, and we’re taking it even further”, he said.

With a clear nod to the MoU, Wibergh said that Vodafone aims 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 openRAN ecosystem”, added the CTO.

Wibergh’s sentiments on needing more support from governments were echoed by Claudia Nemat, Head of Technology & Innovation at Deutsche Telekom.

“Through our open labs and community activities, we facilitate smaller players to enter the market with their solutions, [but], to build on this foundational work, we urge government support and funding for community activities that will strengthen the European ecosystem and leadership in 5G.

— Nemat.

Streetwise engineers

The MoU, apart perhaps from the common procurement strategy, does not appear to represent too much of a change in direction of Vodafone’s efforts to promote open RAN. In a recent job description for an Open RAN Senior Engineer, Vodafone pointedly noted that the brief extended beyond having the right technical know‑how. The successful candidate was expected to “interface” with industry forums, partners, and potential customers, and be a point man (or woman) for suppliers, markets, and Group functions in the open RAN space.

Leading player in open RAN quartet

Of the four MoU signatories, Vodafone is arguably the most enthusiastic and active when it comes to open RAN commercial trials and pilots. Its most ambitious deployment is in Wales and the south west of England, where it plans to roll out 2,600 mobile sites (Vodafonewatch, #191).

Vodafone UK (VfUK) aims to have at least 20% of all its sites based on disaggregated architectures, but that is not until 2027, which is when the UK’s mobile network operators have to stop using Huawei Technologies’ 5G kit.

The OpCo has already started the supplier evaluation process, with selection slated for 2021. Deployments are not expected to start until 2022. In previous open RAN trials, VfUK has worked with Mavenir Systems and UK‑based startup Lime Microsystems (see table).

MarketTechnologySupplier

Vodafone open RAN commercial field trials and deployments, where publicised

Notes: * Trial ongoing as of July 2020.
** Vodafonewatch unable to determine partner identity.
Does not include lab test programme in South Africa or deployments of associated Open CrowdCell solution for urban centres, deployed in Spain, Turkey, and the UK, and supported by Lime Microsystems.
Sources: Vodafone; various.

Democratic Republic of Congo *

2G

Parallel Wireless

Ghana **

3G, 4G

India

4G

Mavenir

Ireland *

2G, 3G, 4G

Parallel Wireless

Mozambique *

4G

Mavenir

Netherlands

4G, 5G

NEC, Altiostar

Turkey *

2G, 3G, 4G

Parallel Wireless

UK *

3G, 4G

Mavenir

Vodafone can also lay legitimate claim to driving TIP’s ecosystem building efforts of radio hardware suppliers that are compliant (or near‑compliant) with specifications developed by its OpenRAN Project Group.

TIP Chairman Santiago Tenorio, who is also Vodafone’s Head of Network Strategy & Architecture, recently unveiled several that emerged from a recent Vodafone request for information (RFI) for 4G/5G remote radio heads (RRH), and described them as “frontrunners” in the open radio hardware space (see table) Vodafonewatch, #190.

Apparently speaking on behalf of the suppliers, Tenorio indicated that operators will be able to “buy radios [from the RFI ‘winners’] and deploy them on OpenRAN systems towards the first half of 2021”.

CategoryFrontrunners 

Vodafone’s “frontrunner” open radio hardware suppliers

Source: Vodafone.

Multi‑band remote radio head

Baicells Technologies

Comba

Fujitsu

Mavenir

NTS

Single band remote radio head

Comba

Mavenir

NTS

Massive MIMO

Airspan

Gigatera Communications

NEC

NTC

Xilinx

Most efficient energy consumption

Comba

Mavenir

NTS

Most efficient mechanical design

Mavenir

NEC

NTS

Portfolio breadth

Comba

Fujitsu

Mavenir

NEC

NTS

Major breakthrough

Evenstar

 

Evenstar rising

The above RFI appears to build on radio hardware work carried out by the TIP‑backed Evenstar programme, which Tenorio acknowledged had “design input” from Vodafone. The initial aim of Evenstar is to build a single‑band (1800MHz) RRH using a traditional 4×4 MIMO configuration and 160 watt power consumption, and compliant with application programming interface specifications drawn up by the O‑RAN Alliance.

Progress has been made. In December 2020, Mavenir and Microelectronics Technology, in collaboration with Facebook Connectivity, announced general availability of the EvenstarB3 RRHs according to those specs.