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European operators form OpenRAN cabal

Vodafone, Telefónica, Orange and Deutsche Telekom have signed one of those MoUs, committing to collaborate on the development of OpenRAN technology.

You can read the full memorandum of understanding here. At a superficial level it’s the standard set of vows, aspirations and vague promises that we’ve come to associate with such things. On further inspection, however, it does have some substance, while still carefully avoiding many concrete, measurable commitments.

They start by collectively agreeing that OpenRAN (the operators are putting a space in, presumably to make it more generic), which is designed to open up the RAN vendor market by disaggregating its components, is a great idea. They then make the following commitments:

  • The signatories individually commit that Open RAN will be the technology of choice for RAN.
  • The signatories commit to an early rollout of Open RAN technologies in individually relevant quantities to support the development of a healthy ecosystem.
  • The signatories will collaborate to support Open RAN reaching competitive parity with traditional RAN solutions as soon as possible.

The commitments seem pretty strident, don’t they? But look at the amount of wriggle room allowed by the wording. What does ‘technology of choice’ mean? ‘Early’ is a relative term – there is no absolute commitment there. The same applies to ‘as soon as possible’. Having said that, it is significant that Europe’s dominant operator groups have managed to get together and all point in roughly the same direction on this important matter. Here are their canned quotes.

“Open RAN has the power to stimulate European tech innovation using the expertise of the companies that develop it and the governments who support it,” said Vodafone Group CTO Johan Wibergh. “Opening up the market to new suppliers, with our ambition and government advocacy, will mean faster 5G deployment, cost-saving network efficiencies and world-class services.

“We remain committed to rolling out our Open RAN program across Europe, and we’re taking it even further. 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.”

“Open RAN is the natural evolution of radio access technologies and it will be key for 5G networks,” said Enrique Blanco, CTIO at Telefónica. “Telefónica believes the whole industry must work together to make it a reality.

“I am excited to be partnering with major European operators to promote the development of an open technology that will help to enhance the flexibility, efficiency and security of our networks. This is an extraordinary opportunity for the European industry not only to promote the development of 5G but also to participate in its sustainable technological development.”

“Open RAN is the next major evolution of 5G RAN,” said Michaël Trabbia, CTIO at Orange. “Orange believes it is a strong opportunity for existing and emerging European actors to develop O-RAN based products and services, starting with indoor and rural areas. This evolution should be supported by a large European ecosystem (academics and research, software and hardware developers, integrators, public funding for R&D) as it is a unique occasion to reinforce the European competitiveness and leadership in the global market.”

“Open RAN is about network innovation, flexibility and faster rollout,” said Claudia Nemat, CTO of DT. “Deutsche Telekom is committed to its promotion, development and adoption to ensure the best network experience for our customers. To seize this opportunity, it is critical that we join forces with our leading European partners to foster a diverse, competitive and secure 4G/5G ecosystem based on open RAN solutions.

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

The most notable feature of those quotes is that all, bar Telefónica, openly extend the begging bowl for public largesse. As Light Reading notes in its coverage of the news, European telcos already have their eyes on a piece of the EU’s post-COVID stimulus package, despite the fact that there are literally millions of businesses in much greater need of financial assistance.

Even if we take the MoU entirely at face value, it seems clear that this collaboration is also designed to give the EU one easy place to chuck any money it has earmarked for OpenRAN. As we discussed in the middle segment of the most recent Telecoms.com Podcast, OpenRAN has become politicized by the creation of a vendor duopoly following the decision of much of the western world to exclude Chinese vendors from its 5G networks. Where there’s political will, there will always be public funds.

And let’s see how long this unholy alliance between direct competitors lasts. We also received the following comment from Vodafone’s UK CTO Scott Petty. “Vodafone has led the way in OpenRAN with our commitment to deploy more than 2,500 sites in the UK, a number which will only grow as the technology matures.

“However, if this ecosystem is to succeed we need the whole industry to follow our lead. This memorandum of understanding with some of the industry’s leading telecoms operators is a vital step towards achieving the support and scale needed for OpenRAN to be a genuine alternative to traditional radio access networks.”

It seems clear who Petty thinks has been doing the heavy lifting on European OpenRAN so far, although it should be noted that Telefónica has also been getting involved. Orange and DT are late to the game and seem the most focused on getting help from a political bloc that is effectively run by their home countries. Perhaps that’s what they’ve been waiting for.

This is what happens when you mix politics and business. By poking their nose into the telecoms vendor sector, western politicians have created an imbalance they now feel compelled to rectify. If OpenRAN is such a great idea then it should succeed without state assistance. And if these four operators are serious about making OpenRAN the technology of choice for RAN then they should get on with it by themselves.


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