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open RAN

Vodafone calls out open RAN 'frontrunners'

Nearly a year ago, in bicycle-mad Amsterdam, Vodafone's Yago Tenorio made the dramatic disclosure that his firm's entire European footprint, comprising about 150,000 mobile sites, was up for grabs.

Announced at the annual summit of the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), a Facebook-founded industry association that Tenorio now chairs, this "tender" for new radio access network (RAN) technology was clearly meant to exert pressure on Vodafone's traditional suppliers – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.

That's because it was also an invitation to smaller players touting open RAN, a new software-based technology that promised to address some of the complaints typically made about the three big suppliers.

Vodafone's Yago Tenorio, in the days when physical events still happened.
Vodafone's Yago Tenorio, in the days when physical events still happened.

One of the most common complaints is that a lack of interoperability – stemming from gaps in mobile specifications – forces an operator to buy all its RAN products for a particular site from the same vendor. Open RAN companies are wielding new interfaces as a multivendor fix.

While few expected a 150,000-site shake-up, the possibility was dangled that open RAN companies would pick up a share of the work.

Coming soon, from an open RAN vendor near you

Since then, a nasty virus has swept the planet, Huawei has been turfed out of several countries and networks on security grounds, Ericsson has continued with its Swedish sulk about open RAN – and Tenorio, Vodafone's head of network strategy, appears to have left his bike in Amsterdam.

At least, there has been little sign of pedaling momentum amid all the disruption caused by coronavirus, geopolitics and network upheaval.

Until today, that is.

Cooped up in his own home, Vogue poster in the background, Tenorio named the radio vendors that have graduated from the Vodafone school of open RAN.

Speaking at one of the TIP online events that have depressingly replaced the physical variety, he revealed the "frontrunners" for new radio products compatible with open RAN specifications.

If it was not quite the same as a signed agreement to substitute open RAN vendors for Huawei, the update was a further sign the new technology could meet operators' exacting mobile requirements.

Vodafone has broken down the vendors by several categories, providing an indication of where particular suppliers might fit into the RAN landscape. The results are shown in the table below.

Table 1: Vodafone open RAN hardware – radio RFI results

Category Frontrunners
Multi-band remote radio head Baicells, Comba, Fujitsu, Mavenir, NTS
Single band remote radio head Comba, Mavenir, NTS
Massive MIMO Airspan, Gigatera, NEC, NTC, Xilinx
Most efficient energy consumption Comba, Mavenir, NTS
Most efficient mechanical design Mavenir, NEC, NTS
Portfolio breadth Comba, Fujitsu, Mavenir, NEC, NTS
Major breakthrough Evenstar
Source: Vodafone

"These are companies you want to pay attention to," said Tenorio. "They are all going to be ready for you to deploy in 2021. In some cases, it is available now. In most cases, we put it at mid-2021."

As shown in the table, a special mention was reserved for Evenstar, TIP's own get-its-hands-dirty initiative to build a radio unit for less than $1,000.

That was achieved for a 40-watt radio, featuring four transmitters and receivers and operating in the widely used and versatile 1800MHz band. "We may extend designs to other bands," said Tenorio. "We might to reach multi-band and maybe in the future do a massive MIMO product."


Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.


So what's next? Tenorio is currently working on another project with Dish Network, the satellite firm now building a fourth mobile network in the US.

The goal there is to produce a "white box" – a bit of standardized kit – for the central and distributed units that process signals in the RAN (the so-called baseband part of the network).

"We may also be designing our own baseband into Evenstar," he said. "Why stop at the radio? Maybe you can have a whole basestation that is white boxed, and you can buy for a very low cost. We will be doing that too."

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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