Samsung will struggle to replace Ericsson or Nokia at O2

Virgin Media O2's UK mobile network is a feast of Ericsson and Nokia and a tiny helping of Huawei. Is that about to change? The news that South Korea's Samsung is in 4G and 5G trials with the UK operator – broken by Samsung itself – will inevitably fuel speculation. Telefónica, one of Virgin Media O2's owners, has made a big deal about supplier diversity, after all. And Samsung has already wriggled into the UK network of Vodafone, where it is replacing Huawei.

While the scale of these trials is not clear from Samsung's statement, the company is to supply a mixture of baseband units, massive MIMO radios and 4G radios that work on low-band and mid-band spectrum. Importantly, there is also a nod to future compliance with open RAN, a concept that would allow one supplier's radios to communicate with another's baseband units. That has previously been difficult, which explains why operators have tended to buy all their baseband and radio gear from the same vendor. Open RAN, operators hope, will bring competition and make swap-outs less painful.

It is a huge priority for Telefónica, which has said up to half its investments in radio access networks between 2022 and 2025 will be in open RAN. Just a few weeks ago, Telefónica said it would carry out open RAN trials with NEC, a Japanese rival to Samsung, in its four main markets of Spain, Germany, the UK and Brazil. One goal there is to set up 800 sites across those countries and put them into commercial use next year.

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Whether Samsung fits into those plans is not clear. As the systems integrator, NEC could feasibly mix Samsung's radios or baseband units with products from other vendors. But the relationship would be odd. Samsung competes directly against NEC in hardware, does not mention partners in its own release and is obviously bringing a full portfolio of RAN offerings to the Virgin Media O2 trials.

On Vodafone's open RAN deployment, moreover, Samsung is clearly the main vendor. It is contributing not only radio units but also the RAN software, running on Intel-powered servers built by Dell. This qualifies it as a "virtual" RAN deployment. Proof it ticks the "open RAN" box will only come when Samsung's software and another vendor's radios can perform together like old dance partners.

Under pressure

Of course, unlike other UK operators, Virgin Media O2 is under no government pressure to introduce a new vendor. Its use of Huawei, a Chinese vendor that operators must evict by 2028, was limited to just a smattering of sites when the government imposed its ban last year. The operator seems in no hurry to replace its longstanding Nordic suppliers.

And doing so might be difficult, judging by Vodafone's experience. Because Samsung lacks any 3G network products, Vodafone needs to phase out 3G services before it can switch off the Huawei network – a process that is taking longer than expected. Needed for roaming and the Internet of Things, the 2G network will be in use for even longer. If Virgin Media O2 chose not to buy 2G products from Samsung, it would have to maintain Samsung's 4G and 5G networks in parallel with 2G technology from Ericsson or Nokia – all while rivals operate 2G, 4G and 5G on the same platform. One apparent goal of the trials is to check that Samsung's 4G and 5G products are interoperable with older 2G and 3G networks.

Another entry point into the UK is good news for Samsung, which seems eager to challenge Ericsson and Nokia as an alternative to Huawei. But UK market followers should not expect a major deal between Samsung and Virgin Media O2 anytime soon.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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