Nobody wants to spend money on steam engines when high-speed bullet trains are the future. But what if steam engines are still in use?
It's arguably the single greatest conundrum for open RAN. The set of interfaces, designed to ease interoperability between suppliers, is being developed with more advanced 4G and 5G in mind. Yet the older generations may be around for years.
Two companies are under the spotlight. On the telco side is Vodafone, whose chief technology officer, Johan Wibergh, this week told Mobile World Congress that his company "will" use open RAN at 30% of its European masts by 2030.
It is already making the switch at 2,500 UK sites where Huawei, its 2G provider, must be evicted under government orders by the end of 2027. That is five years before the government expects 2G to be phased out.
On the vendor side is Samsung. It is not only the main supplier on Vodafone UK's open RAN project. It is also the biggest global alternative to Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia and ZTE, the four kit-making incumbents.
But it has concentrated entirely on 4G and 5G, lacking not only a 3G product portfolio – an issue previously flagged by Vodafone – but also a 2G one.
Woojune Kim, Samsung's head of global sales, brushed off concern at Mobile World Congress while acknowledging a gap exists.
"If you can do 4G and 5G and vRAN [virtual RAN], then 2G is a piece of cake," he told Light Reading.
"If you can make gigabit speeds through software on vRAN, how difficult can 2G be?"
The RAN without a plan
Easy fix or otherwise, the company has no official public guidance on its 2G strategy, and the lack of detail is hardly encouraging. Orange, another telco enthused by open RAN, reckons the best solution is to phase out 2G (and 3G) by the end of this decade.
But Vodafone has indicated that even a 3G shutdown in the UK will be difficult to execute in the next few years.
At a press conference in September 2021, Ker Anderson, Vodafone UK's head of radio and performance, said he expects 2G to outlast 3G and still be around when he retires. Judging by his appearance and energy levels, it will be a long time before Anderson trades work for gardening, long walks with the dog or daytime TV.
Barring a Samsung fix or the death of 2G, Vodafone will have to maintain two separate networks – one built by Samsung (along with a few other open RAN suppliers) for the 4G and 5G business and one built by Huawei for 2G (and possibly 3G).
It has already activated one open RAN site on this basis. But Anderson previously expressed concern that running parallel networks at scale would "create a dog's dinner of capabilities so that managing traffic ... becomes a performance nightmare."
It could also be costly. Different generations of mobile technology have been collapsed onto single hardware platforms (so-called single RAN), allowing operators to use less infrastructure.
Nokia, for instance, now advertises that "just one basestation can run concurrently 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G technologies." Vodafone would not have this economical option.
Essentially, as rivals take advantage of single RAN – no other UK operator shares Vodafone's open RAN zeal – Vodafone could be lumbered with twice as much hardware.
There are implications for masts, too. Additional equipment would take up space and put further stress on them, possibly leading to higher site rental fees or expenditure on reinforcing the steel.
The Huawei footprint is much greater than 2,500 sites, as well. Judging by comments Vodafone made in 2019, it is more like 6,000. If the operator's idea is to extend open RAN to the remainder, the job would be even tougher.
But turning to Ericsson or Nokia, the only viable 2G providers, would be awkward. If Vodafone could not even manage an open RAN transition across 30% of its UK footprint, how could it expect to realize Wibergh's pan-European goal? 2G and 3G, after all, are not confined to the UK.
Of course, this is all speculative, and it does not mean Wibergh's target is unattainable or that parallel Vodafone networks in the UK are inevitable. Samsung may provide a fix. Vodafone might be able to retire 2G by the late 2020s.
What's curious is Vodafone's seemingly religious commitment to open RAN, a technology that will give it no discernible advantage but one riddled with risk. One senior technology executive at another European operator expressed befuddlement about the Vodafone strategy.
The big pitch remains the same: That open RAN will diversify a market still controlled by a few industry giants.
But that oligopoly – a natural consequence of the push for globalization – has delivered huge economies of scale and a mobile boom, much as Intel did in computer chips. Diversification of the open RAN variety is still a hard sell.
- Vodafone UK says 3G 'holding back' open RAN plan
- Samsung beats Euro, US rivals to land Vodafone UK open RAN deal
- Vodafone UK to swap big part of Huawei for open RAN
- Samsung in battle to be seen as European 5G contender
- Mavenir aims to plug open RAN’s 2G hole
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading