Vodafone had already solidified its reputation as one of the biggest cheerleaders for open RAN when its UK business recently promised to use the technology at about 2,600 sites currently served by Huawei, a Chinese vendor the government is banning.
But Vodafone's first deployment of open RAN in a developed market is likely to come in neighboring Ireland, where it is set to launch a 4G service that ticks all the right multivendor boxes.
Operators such as Vodafone have grown infatuated with open RAN, believing it could spur competition to Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, the dominant providers of radio access network (RAN) products.
Today, operators have to buy all the components at a RAN site from the same supplier to avoid interoperability problems. Open RAN promises to end this "lock-in" through new interfaces. It would also allow network software to be used in tandem with commodity hardware.
Vodafone Ireland's deployment could be a vital proof point for the technology. It will use RAN software developed by Parallel Wireless, a small but high-profile US company that Vodafone previously identified as a triallist in Ireland.
Its software works in conjunction with baseband (or signal processing) equipment supplied by Supermicro, a server maker from California. Radio units chosen by Vodafone come from Comba Telecom.
Parallel Wireless is also supplying a network management feature called the real-time intelligent controller (or RIC). That is to be hosted in a Dublin data center on HP hardware that makes use of VMware's cloud-computing software.
In other words, it is a busy little gathering of companies that must all play nicely together if the technology is to work.
But this is still a very limited deployment, covering just 30 sites in Ireland's rural northwest. While Vodafone will not disclose the total number of sites in Ireland – saying that is commercially sensitive information – 30 is undoubtedly a small fraction of the overall network footprint.
Unlike its UK sibling, Vodafone Ireland also presents this as a new or "greenfield" project, meaning it entails no replacement of older 4G network products. That minimizes the risk of disruption if something goes awry.
The market should soon find out. The aim is to have the first site ready in December and all 30 deployed and operational by the end of March next year, says Vodafone.
It hopes to expand open RAN to other 4G sites in rural Ireland if all goes to plan.
Of interest to other service providers will be how much Vodafone can save compared with using traditional products. Open RAN companies have pitched themselves as an inexpensive alternative, and Vodafone says commodity hardware will carry a lower total cost of ownership than customized kit. That and an injection of competition should drive prices down, says a Vodafone spokesperson. A cost analysis is to be carried out when sites are live, Parallel Wireless tells Light Reading.
Until results appear, many observers will be skeptical. According to Dell'Oro, a market research firm, open RAN currently generates annual sales of about $200 million in a RAN market worth between $30 billion and $35 billion. Right now, it obviously lacks the same economies of scale as traditional products.
Rakuten, an operator building an open RAN network in Japan, says it bought high-end 5G equipment based on open RAN technology for half the price that Huawei, Ericsson or Nokia would have attached to their traditional kit.
But Tareq Amin, Rakuten Mobile's chief technology officer, was able to drive an especially hard bargain with NEC. The Japanese supplier, he says, effectively agreed to be a system design house for Rakuten, building to a profitability target he deemed appropriate.
Such arrangements between companies from the same country will probably not have been available to Vodafone.
Another concern is that dealing with a multitude of suppliers could actually inflate its operational costs. One goal in Ireland is to pioneer the use of systems integrators that could address this complexity. Vodafone also says it wants to help develop the ecosystem "to include RAN automation vendors."
The inclusion of Comba Telecom in the project comes just a few weeks after it was called out by Yago Tenorio, Vodafone's head of network strategy, as one of the hardware frontrunners in the open RAN market.
It received mentions for its portfolio breadth, efficiency on energy consumption and expertise in single- and multi-band remote radio heads.
But it hails from Hong Kong and has research-and-development facilities in the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Nanjing. Notwithstanding a change in the US administration, it is unlikely to be a popular choice in some US circles given the ongoing geopolitical clash between China and the US.
Anyone who thinks Huawei and ZTE are the only network companies of concern should visit the membership page of the Open RAN Policy Coalition, a Washington, DC-based lobby group that preaches the virtues of open RAN to government authorities. It names not a single Chinese company, even though many, including Comba, contribute to the O-RAN Alliance, the main specifications group.
While Vodafone's tie-up with Parallel Wireless could validate a multivendor rollout in a rural setting, there may be longer to wait for an urban breakthrough in most advanced markets, says Comba.
"In the next two years I would say that, except for some greenfield or special cases, most of the deployments with traditional mobile operators are going to happen first in rural sites," said Marie Ma, Comba's senior director of technical marketing and solutions, in a recent interview with Light Reading.
- Open RAN will be mostly rural until 2023 – Comba
- Vodafone calls out open RAN 'frontrunners'
- Vodafone UK to swap big part of Huawei for open RAN
- Is open RAN a protectionist scam?
- Open RAN and the Everest of inflated expectations
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading