European incumbents push on with OpenRAN rollout

telecoms radio mast

Two of Europe’s biggest telecoms players have announced new initiatives to scale up their early moves into OpenRAN.

In Italy, TIM has added a second location to its OpenRAN footprint and is working on launching OpenRAN 5G stand-alone in the field, while further west, Telefonica has brokered a deal with NEC that will see the pair carry out pre-commercial OpenRAN trials in three major European markets and Brazil.

TIM undertook a live OpenRAN rollout on 4G in the town of  Faenza in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region in April, working with JMA Wireless and Microelectronics Technology Inc (MTI). It has since activated the technology in Matera, in the south of the country, this time working with Mavenir and again using MTI for the 4G radio unit.

But the Matera launch is just part of the story. TIM has also established an OpenRAN 5G standalone connection at its Innovation Lab in Turin – home to the Open Test and Integration Centre (OTIC) it announced this summer – and says it will “soon” launch the technology in the field in Matera. In the lab, it used 3.7 GHz spectrum on its 5G network, working with Mavenir for core network and radio functionality, and Dell and Intel for infrastructure, and using the VMware Telco Cloud Platform for NFV and automation.

“TIM thereby confirms its position as the only operator in Italy – and among the first in Europe – to have already undertaken a major infrastructural initiative to promote the ‘open network’ model,” the operator said, in a statement. And to be completely fair to TIM, it has moved pretty quickly since it joined Vodafone, Telefónica, Orange and Deutsche Telekom’s European telco OpenRAN club back in February. It’s not the only one though.

Telefonica is tackling OpenRAN across a much broader footprint than its Italian peer, and on Tuesday announced it will carry out pre-commercial trials of the technology in its four main markets: Spain, Germany, the UK and Brazil.

The Spanish incumbent has teamed up with NEC for the trials. NEC will serve as its main systems integrator partner to help it carry out trials of multi-vendor OpenRAN solutions across the four markets. It did not name the other vendors involved, but we can probably make an educated guess than at least some of the OpenRAN big guns will be involved. At this stage, the companies are simply saying that the OpenRAN solutions to be trialled will comprise NEC’s own products, including its open 5G massive MIMO radio units with advanced beamforming, as well as software and hardware from other “trusted industry leading partners.” The companies will also work together on OpenRAN technologies and use cases at Telefonica’s new Technology and Automation Lab in Madrid.

The trials will ultimately cover at least 800 cells sites, with commercial use starting in 2022, the companies said. This is clearly a much larger scale project than TIM’s efforts in Italy. Indeed, Teelfonica has already trialled the technology in Germany and the UK. Further, it said it expects to reach “50% radio network growth based on Open RAN by 2025,” which is slightly tricksy wording, but suggests half of the new sites it deploys going forward will be OpenRAN.

If this were a race – and the telcos always like to come first, no matter how many collaboration agreements they sign with their rivals – you could argue that Telefonica is slightly ahead. But realistically, OpenRAN is only just coming out of the blocks. There’s a long way to go yet.

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