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Vodafone UK unveils its first (mostly) OpenRAN site

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A Vodafone UK macro cell site has been switched on in Bath, which uses OpenRAN technology in all areas bar the antenna.

A lot of the stuff in a RAN site is softwarised these days, making it a lot easier to tweak to ensure it plays nice with all the other components. There’s no escaping the hardware nature of the antenna, however, and it looks like we’re still a few months away from ensuring its OpenRAN interoperability. While this takes the shine off the announcement somewhat, Vodafone still thought it was worth exposing the rest of the set up to real-life conditions ASAP.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter for the mobile industry,” said Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK. “Our team has been working tirelessly to take OpenRAN technology from a theory in our lab to our customers in the real-world – it’s remarkable how much has been achieved in such a short period of time. OpenRAN as a concept is only five years old, and we’re already fundamentally changing how we deploy connectivity infrastructure. This is a watershed moment in the telecoms industry, and a catalyst for change and evolution.”

That remains to be seen but Vodafone does at least deserve credit for backing its ambitious OpenRAN talk with action. This represents the beginning of a first wave of OpenRAN sites that will eventually amount to 2,500. To the best of our knowledge no other UK operators are being anywhere near this proactive on the matter. To demonstrate everything works they apparently did a 5G video call through the site.

At this stage it’s far from guaranteed that OpenRAN will deliver on its many promises, however. Vodafone has assured us that it wouldn’t be doing this if there were any significant implications for cost or performance. Then again, you’ve got to start somewhere and this feels like a first dipping of toe into the water to see how all the various bits and bobs deal with the live environment.

Samsung seems to be the major partner, providing the vRAN solutions as well as general systems integration support. Dell is the server partner, Intel is providing the chips, Wind River (formerly owned by Intel) is in charge of the software plumbing that stitches it all together, while Capgemini and Keysight did the preparatory interoperability work. Quite a few prominent OpenRAN players are conspicuous by their absence.

There were a bunch of quotes from all of the above but, without exception, they were the usual generic platitudes about how excited they are to be involved and how this demonstrates how great they are, so we’ll spare you the gory details. Since OpenRAN became politicised by the US government, it now seems to be obligatory for a politician to insinuate themselves into any announcement such as this.

“This phone call, the first in the UK to be made using 5G OpenRAN infrastructure, marks a big step forward for innovation in UK telecoms,” said Julia Lopez, UK Digital Infrastructure Minister. “OpenRAN will have an important role to play in the future of our mobile networks and I congratulate Vodafone for being the first to make it happen. The government is investing in the technology through our £250 million diversification strategy so we can deliver the amazing benefits of 5G for people and businesses with more diverse, resilient and secure equipment in our networks.”

Vodafone says OpenRAN 4G and 5G antennas from Samsung and NEC will be deployed from mid-2022, so you can see why it was reluctant to wait that long. Our understanding is that the operator is taking the long view on this technology, and that it views its benefit to be as much about the increased innovation that is likely to accompany an enlarged vendor ecosystem as anything else. That makes sense but, as with much else to do with OpenRAN, we’ll have to wait and see.

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