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Vodafone puts its money where its mouth is with new OpenRAN lab

UK telco Vodafone has been banging on about OpenRAN for a while and is its biggest domestic cheerleader, so it’s good to see it lead from the front by investing in its development.

The latest investment takes the form of an OpenRAN Test and Integration Lab at its Newbury technology campus, which it announced today. The lab isn’t open yet but when it is it will employ 30 boffins with the aim of giving OpenRAN vendors a better idea of the sort of kit, interoperability and outcomes Vodafone needs to start swapping out equipment from the big legacy vendors.

The announcement coincides with the publication of the Telecom Diversification Taskforce’s findings and recommendations, which include a government mandated proportion of vendors in a given network having to be ‘new’ ones. While this is an absurd over-reach of regulatory powers that may well have no teeth when it comes to enforcement, Vodafone is likely to be the least bothered by it as it’s moving in that direction anyway.

“The Government should set out a clear ambition for the deployment of equipment from alternative suppliers, or from Open RAN solutions, to a meaningful proportion of the network – and clarify its intent to ensure these alternative suppliers should form an integral part of the UK’s urban networks in the longer term,” says paragraph 43 of the report.

“We recommend the Government sets a challenging ambition to work toward a significant portion of equipment within mobile operators’ networks being supplied by new suppliers and/or through open architectures. The Taskforce believes 25% by the mid 2020s should be the initial aspiration for mobile operators.”

As we commented when the report was leaked last week, “this should be a matter for the market. If the smaller vendors come up with competitive kit then UK MNOs will consider using it. If they don’t then imposing sub-standard products on the UK’s telcos merely to hit some arbitrary threshold would be foolish and self-defeating.”

The best thing about this Vodafone move is that it increases the chances of that kit being up to scratch. Without facilities such as this, OpenRAN vendors are groping in the dark somewhat. Conversely, what stronger buying signals could they possibly hope for than the rubber stamp from one of their prospective customers?

“The OpenRAN ecosystem is still in its infancy, and we want to spur its development,” said Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK. “We want to avoid a Catch-22 situation, where operators wait to buy perfect products, but the OpenRAN vendors need investment to perfect their products.

“This is why we are announcing this investment in a new  R&D lab, as well as committing to 2,500 OpenRAN sites in the UK countryside. OpenRAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition, and carbon savings. But we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem.”

OpenRAN still seems a long way from supplanting the current RAN setup, but Dona is right to imply it doesn’t stand a chance unless there’s close collaboration across the entire ecosystem. After all, it’s supposed to be open, right? There are also many questions about what benefits it will confer, other than hitting arbitrary political targets. Here are three that Vodafone had flagged up.

  • Vendor diversity: Lowers barrier to entry for RAN companies and increases the resiliency of the ecosystem with technology companies able to scale specific capabilities rather than focusing on a complete end-to-end solution. This approach will allow niche technology segments to develop enabling Vodafone to work with more specialist providers, as well as the ability to leverage global IT vendors and existing platforms brought by the capability to deploy OpenRAN on COTS GPP platforms widely deployed in IT systems.
  • Evolution to software-orientated organisation: Move from a limited set of R&D silos to a more creative “Network of Collaboration” for innovation. Broader and more diverse vendor ecosystems are created, driving innovation and competition with the resultant benefits to Vodafone. Vodafone can also dedicate more resource and investment to software projects, as upgrade paths are no-longer intrinsically linked to hardware components of the network
  • Environmental impact: Vodafone can begin to optimise specific elements of the RAN supply chain, including improving the environmental impact, which is a simpler process when separating different components of the RAN ecosystem

Vodafone included some inevitable opportunistic hot air from a politician in the release, but it’s irrelevant. If we do get telecoms vendor diversity in the UK it will be down to initiatives such as this and the market acting in its own interest. The best thing the government can to is to get out of the way and let everyone else just get on with it.


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