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Vodafone doubles down on Open RAN with new partnerships and pilots

Vodafone

UK-based telco group Vodafone is pulling all the strings it can to turn its Open RAN dream into reality.

Open RAN has been under the spotlight this week at the Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP’s) Fyuz event in Madrid. And Vodafone appears to have been making the most of it, announcing a slew of partnerships, and sharing plans for commercial pilot schemes in Germany.

Arguably Vodafone’s most significant announcement is a partnership with Nokia to jointly develop a fully Open RAN compliant solution that incorporates the latter’s ReefShark system on a chip (SoC). Developed in partnership with US-based Marvell, ReefShark offers the sort of processing capability that is required to provide reliable connectivity in high-traffic areas.

Vodafone and Nokia claim their work will lead to Open RAN networks that offer the same functionality as, and performance parity with, traditional mobile networks. They plan to demonstrate an Open RAN baseband system early next year, which can be used in tandem with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers from third-party suppliers.

“Open RAN is transforming networks from pure communications systems into platforms for innovation. It transforms mobile masts into automated software-driven, smart towers capable of supporting new applications for use in telemedicine, homes, transport, and factories. It is why we have spearheaded the technology, together with other like-minded companies, to live deployments,” said Vodafone CTO Johan Wibergh, in a statement. “I’m delighted to see Nokia’s commitment to the club and I’m sure together we will maintain the flow of innovation in Europe.”

If all goes well, this could address one of the big doubts about Open RAN, namely whether it is capable of being more than a low-cost coverage solution for sparsely-populated areas. However, it also begs the question, does Open RAN still deliver on its promise of shaking up the supply chain if it is heavily reliant on one of the big two mobile network vendors to get it working as intended?

Nokia isn’t the only big name on Vodafone’s roster of Open RAN partners this week. It has also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Japan’s NTT DoCoMo that covers the harmonisation of Open RAN systems integration and testing. The aim is to avoid duplication, so that vendors can use the same test processes with multiple operators.

“The collective R&D power of Vodafone and DoCoMo will lower the entry barrier for many more companies across Europe and Asia wishing to build Open RAN networks,” Wibergh said. “Rather than fragmenting the industry, Open RAN is bringing us together, across continents, to drive diversification of network equipment vendors and ensure greater systems integration.”

The partnership also covers joint work on service management orchestrator (SMO) and RAN intelligent controller (RIC) platforms, and the publication of a whitepaper focusing on the efficiency of RAN technologies, integration processes, artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) and automation techniques. Voda and DoCoMo are also discussing the possibility of remotely connecting their Open RAN labs, in line with Vodafone’s vision for a distributed network of facilities that coordinate – and thereby spread the cost – of Open RAN development.

Vodafone has also established a new area of cooperation with long-term Open RAN partner Samsung. The two companies together with Marvell will try to get Samsung’s virtualised RAN software to work with Marvell’s OCTEON Fusion chip, which provides supplementary processing power to the RAN by taking some of the load off the central processing unit (CPU). They claim that incorporating these accelerators, as they are known, will enable Open RAN networks to match and one day outperform existing radio networks.

As well as being busy in the lab, Vodafone is also pushing ahead with Open RAN in the real world.

Alongside the various partnerships, the operator revealed plans for two commercial Open RAN trials in rural Germany in early 2023. They build on successful field tests carried out in Plauen, Saxony, in November 2021. Again relying heavily on Samsung kit, the new trials will take place in South East Bavaria and North East Lower Saxony. Voda said this is an important step on its path to equip 30 percent of its European cell sites with Open RAN by 2030.

“This will be the first Open RAN system in Germany that not only uses open interfaces but is built on both hardware and software from multiple vendors that is fully interchangeable and interoperable based on the choice of the operator,” Santiago Tenorio, director of network architecture for Vodafone, in a separate statement. “It brings timely resilience to the supply chain, allowing us to work with a greater number and more diverse pool of suppliers. Greater competition also encourages innovation, leading to a better mobile experience for our customers.”

 

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