June 14, 2021
Arguably no operator of a brownfield mobile network has been as ambitious as Vodafone when it comes to open RAN. When British authorities last year announced their clampdown on Huawei, Vodafone UK said would replace the Chinese firm with new open RAN vendors at about 2,500 mainly rural sites in the west of the country. Today it has announced its main suppliers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a big role for South Korea's Samsung, and not much work for Europeans.
Samsung emerges as the provider of the radio access network software, apparently beating off competition from Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, the US firms that have figured in most open RAN deployments so far. Its selection comes after Yago Tenorio – Vodafone Group's head of network strategy and the chairman of the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) – had praised the South Korean vendor following an earlier TIP request for information. Samsung was 80%-compliant with TIP's requirements, said Tenorio during a TIP event in late 2019, putting it ahead of all rivals.
"Samsung performed well on TIP evaluations they talked about a year and a half ago and so in that sense it is not a surprise," says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading, a sister company to Light Reading. "Samsung is taking advantage of open RAN to extend its reach."
Figure 1: Vodafone's headquarters in the UK town of Newbury.
Its software will run on its own 2G, 4G and 5G radio units as well as equipment developed under Evenstar, a TIP initiative to develop a box costing less than $1,000. Tenorio said this had been achieved last October for a 40-watt radio featuring four transmitters and receivers and operating in the widely used 1800MHz band. "We may extend designs to other bands," he said at the time. "We might try to reach multiband and maybe in the future do a massive MIMO product."
For now, those high-performance massive MIMO units will be supplied by Samsung as well as Japan's NEC, which is using open interfaces to connect to Samsung's software. On the baseband side, the hardware servers come from Dell, which means Intel's Xeon processors underpin the central and distributed units in the open RAN deployment.
While Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless have built their open RAN technology on top of Intel's FlexRAN platform, Samsung claims to have developed its own software for use with x86 processors. Asked if that would preclude the use of Arm-based processors in future, Vodafone insisted open RAN's flexibility would allow software to evolve as desired.
Heavy Reading's Brown thinks NEC would have been a natural choice as a supplier of radio units because the Japanese market has already taken advantage of open fronthaul capability. "They have been using radios and baseband from different vendors for a long time and are world leaders in this," he says. "NEC and Fujitsu have been working in that area for some time."
Three other vendors are named in Vodafone's release – Wind River, Keysight Technologies and Capgemini Engineering. Wind River is providing the cloud software infrastructure for orchestration, while Keysight and Capgemini – the only European supplier in the mix – look after conformance and interoperability testing to make sure the set-up actually works.
Springboard for Samsung
Brown sounds impressed by the effort so far, describing it as "basically a really good reference" for an open RAN deployment. It appears to be fully compliant with the specifications drawn up by the O-RAN Alliance, the main industry association, and names its 7.2 split – which determines how the various functions are divided across the radio and baseband units – as the approach that will be used.
The deal could be an important springboard for Samsung, which has previously struggled to break into the European RAN market. One earlier concern for brownfield operators was Samsung's lack of support for older 2G and 3G technologies, which are still in widespread use in most countries. Last year, both Howard Watson, the chief technology officer of BT, and Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK's chief network officer, told UK authorities this had put them off using Samsung in the past. That Samsung is now able to contribute 2G hardware suggests the vendor has made investments in response to those concerns.
It will also have gained valuable experience of running its software on hardware developed externally in the US market. On a project with Verizon, it has been running its baseband software on servers developed by HPE, according to Vodafone.
Brown is not the only analyst who sees this as a potentially important contract for the South Korean firm. "This partnership represents a major breakthrough for Samsung and a strong validation for its 5G RAN portfolio," said Richard Webb, an analyst with CCS Insight, in emailed comments. "This contract win adds to its credibility and could be a signal for other European operators to consider Samsung as an option."
Not much work for Europeans
Still, the lack of European vendors in the lineup is a concern for the regional industry, which faces losing out to Asian and US firms if there is a big transition to open RAN in future. Vodafone is one of several European incumbents that has urged European authorities to back new open RAN suppliers, but it obviously feels the local options do not currently measure up.
Eager to diversify the equipment sector, Vodafone also seemed determined not to use either Sweden's Ericsson or Finland's Nokia in its UK open RAN deployment. A role for Ericsson would have left Vodafone UK even more heavily reliant on the Swedish vendor, which was responsible for about 56% of the operator's RAN footprint in 2019. Back then, Nokia supplied products for roughly 12% of Vodafone UK's 18,000 sites but was being phased out of the network.
Open RAN is widely seen as a challenge to the traditional equipment vendors because it would allow operators to buy products from a multitude of suppliers, instead of being tied to one vendor system. While the Nordic vendors now say they are developing their own open RAN products, neither has been able to name a major deal outside Japan, where Rakuten is using some Nokia hardware for a greenfield deployment.
Vodafone was using Huawei at about 32% of its mobile sites in 2019. Under the latest government rules, it will need to have entirely replaced the Chinese firm in its network by 2028. Asked about the speed of the open RAN deployment, a Vodafone spokesperson would say only that rollout will ensure compliance with the government timetable.
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Critics have argued that open RAN cannot match traditional technology on various performance criteria, noting that general-purpose equipment is too power hungry to be competitive. This partly explains why Vodafone's first deployment is mainly in rural areas, where the demands on the network are not as great.
However, the operator clearly believes that improvements can be made across various points of a disaggregated open RAN network. Once these are combined, the hope for advocates is that open RAN will not be at such a performance disadvantage in future. France's Orange has said it believes open RAN will achieve performance "parity" with traditional equipment by the mid-2020s.
"This is another major step forward in making open RAN a reality, and demonstrates our commitment to this ecosystem," said Dona in a prepared statement about today's update. "With these new partners, 2,500 sites marked for deployment, and the test and integration lab on our Newbury technology campus, we're making massive progress in establishing open RAN as a key part of the telecom industry."
"This technology remains a critical component of our network strategy moving forward, and now we have these partners on board we can accelerate the development of open RAN and the supporting ecosystem."
Update: This story has been amended after feedback from Samsung, which pointed out that its software uses x86 processors but is not based on Intel's FlexRAN platform.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading
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