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O2 joins the OpenRAN movement

O2 is the latest telco to join the increasingly popular OpenRAN cause, suggesting the technology could better serve customers in the hard to reach and heavily-populated areas.

Working with Mavenir, DenseAir and WaveMobile, O2 will aim to deploy the technology in dense urban environments, as well as the smaller, isolated rural communities. Like every telco, O2 is attempted to fine-tune the economics of network deployment as the realities of significant 5G investments start to rear their head.

“Connectivity is a lifeline for consumers and businesses alike and we’re committed to delivering the best possible network experience for our customers,” said O2 CTO, Brendan O’Reilly.

“O-RAN represents a really exciting opportunity to deliver better coverage, in more places, more of the time. By opening up our radio access network to smaller vendors, and as we look towards wider adoption of 5G, O-RAN will be part of the solution to bring the latest connectivity to more people around the country.”

O2 has said the OpenRAN initiatives should be up-and-running by Q2 this year. It will also not have any impact on the commitments made by the business to the Shared Rural Network which is being negotiated with the Government and rival telcos.

The Mavenir segment of the project will focus on high-density environments in London. The objective will be to provide enhanced mobile connectivity and better customer experience in high-traffic areas such as stadiums and shopping centres.

“Densification of coverage in cities is a challenge but OpenRAN is ready to take it forward and Mavenir is proud to work with O2,” said Stefano Cantarelli, CMO of Mavenir.

O2 has said the WaveMobile OpenRAN technology is currently active on several sites across the UK including Woldingham in Surrey, and the solution could be used to provide connectivity services in ‘not spots’ in the future.

OpenRAN is increasingly looking like an attractive idea not only because of the technological benefits, but also the commercial. Firstly, opening-up the network to new suppliers will encourage innovation in new areas, and secondly, it puts pressure on current suppliers to negotiate more favourable terms with telcos.

Some might call it cynical, but there have been suggestions that Vodafone’s aggressive move towards OpenRAN is a ploy to gain the upper-hand during negotiations with the likes of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. These traditional suppliers will of course want to hold onto contracts, and prevent money heading towards the likes of Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar. Success breeds success after all.

The more noise makes about OpenRAN as a realistic alternative to the status quo, the more nervous traditional RAN vendors will be. But this is not to say OpenRAN will not take its place in future networks on its own technological merit, it is just a factor which is worth bearing in mind.

Although O2 should certainly be categorised as an early adopter of the technology, there are other existing projects worth noting.

Rakuten will soon become the fourth mobile player in the Japanese market, with its network deployment driven by OpenRAN. Few have the luxury of a greenfield approach like this, but that has not stopped Vodafone deploying OpenRAN in the UK, DRC, Mozambique, South Africa or Turkey. Similarly, Etisalat in the UAE recently announced it was working with NEC, Cisco and Altiostar to deploy the open technology in its own networks.

And over in the US, various Senators and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has been plugging the technology as an alternative for Huawei. Senator Mark Warner recently tabled a bill in Congress which would direct as much as $1 billion toward the OpenRAN community. It will not replace the traditional RAN ecosystem any time soon, but OpenRAN is here and here to stay.

O2 expects the commercial deployment of OpenRAN to accelerate over the next 18-24 months. This might be bad news for the traditional RAN vendors, but with Mobile World Congress kicking off in just over a month, there might be a few more announcements in the pipeline.

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