AMSTERDAM -- TIP Summit 2019 -- Not if Amsterdam had closed its red-light district and banned its famous coffee shops would the audience at today's TIP Summit have been more stunned than when Yago Tenorio, Vodafone's head of network strategy, announced on stage that his company is putting its entire European footprint, comprising 100,000 mobile sites, up for a possible redesign based on open radio access network (RAN) technology.
The operator is to issue a 5G tender that Tenorio calls "the biggest in this industry in the world" outside the vast Chinese market, inviting traditional suppliers and open RAN vendors to pitch for contracts.
The move seems to reflect growing frustration with the existing ecosystem dominated by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia and could see those companies replaced in parts of Vodafone's European networks.
The UK-based operator is one of several Tier 1 operators unhappy about the lack of supplier choice following years of industry consolidation. Its concerns have been aggravated by a US-led campaign against China's Huawei, which still faces the risk of restrictions in some markets on grounds of national security.
Open RAN technology, which has emerged as one of the big news stories at this week's Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit, promises cost savings and flexibility by allowing operators to use general-purpose hardware and more open interfaces. In theory, that means more than one vendor could supply the components and products used at a given site -- something not possible in today's networks.
"It is a really significant opportunity for open RAN to scale," said Tenorio. "We are willing to swap out sites if we have to. The ambition is to have modern, up-to-date, lower-cost kit in every site."
"We are not announcing the results today because this just kicked off but stay tuned because it may be a significant acceleration of the open RAN ecosystem."
Swapping out equipment could be costly, but it may be necessary if Vodafone is to make use of open RAN technologies in developed markets where 4G and 5G networks have already been deployed.
The decision about the European footprint comes after TIP issued a request for information (RFI) to the equipment industry for a 5G network based on open RAN technology.
That RFI included several firm conditions, including a requirement for software that will run on standardized x86 boxes and a need for open interfaces that will support interoperability with other vendor equipment. This means vendors must design products based on O-RAN specifications, said Tenorio, in what appears to be a reference to the work of the O-RAN Alliance -- an operator-led group developing new and more open interfaces. "That is super useful. We are using it on this RFI," he said.
Not even one of the equipment incumbents responded to the RFI, said Tenorio, but TIP did receive information from seven other technology firms trying to make an impact in this area, including Altiostar, Altran, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Phluido, Radisys and Samsung.
And as things stand, it is Samsung that is in the hotseat. The South Korean firm was 80%-compliant with requirements, putting it ahead of several specialists that claim to be open RAN pioneers, including Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless.
Samsung's readiness persuaded Vodafone to press ahead with the tender for its entire European footprint, said Tenorio. "It tells us that to put 5G on OpenRAN, we are probably readier than we thought," he said.
Open RAN technology has clearly received a boost in the last year from the efforts of the Facebook-led TIP, a community of operators and technology companies that is trying to spur competition and lower costs in the network equipment industry.
(For those who are confused by the nomenclature, "open RAN" is a generic term describing radio access network (RAN) infrastructure based on open source designs not tied to any individual vendor. Until now, RAN infrastructure has been tied to individual vendors, so if a telco buys its RAN equipment from -- say -- Ericsson, it is required to buy all its RAN equipment from Ericsson, so it would all work together. Using open RAN, operators could mix and match RAN equipment from several vendors. However, "OpenRAN" is a particular open RAN project, born out of the TIP program.)
On the operator side, Vodafone and Spain's Telefónica have been leading the charge, rolling out commercial services or running field trials in countries including Peru and Turkey.
Skeptics continue to argue that open RAN technologies do not match traditional products when it comes to performance, especially in more demanding conditions. But Vodafone has given a clear signal of the strategic importance it now attaches to open RAN technology.
"On the one hand the operators would like to see more RAN/5G competitors," said Stefan Pongratz, an analyst with Dell'Oro, in a research note issued recently. "But on the other hand, there are so many changes happening from a supply and demand perspective and the R&D required to provide a competitive 5G portfolio with the increased complexity in the RAN and core, the increased use of machine learning and automation in services, and the proliferation of new use cases spanning across a wide range of industries will possibly move the needle in the opposite direction and complicate the entry for new entrants that want to catch up in the 5G race."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading