Vodafone using Ericsson, not open RAN, to swap many Huawei sites

The introduction of Ericsson in areas previously served by Huawei could make Vodafone heavily dependent on the Swedish vendor in future.

Iain Morris, International Editor

September 7, 2023

6 Min Read
Vodafone using Ericsson, not open RAN, to swap many Huawei sites

When the British government began ordering the removal of "high risk vendors" from 5G networks back in 2020, telcos then heavily reliant on Huawei were faced with a difficult decision. At the time, Nokia was in a bad place on 5G after some questionable moves. That left Ericsson as the only big alternative. As highly regarded as it was for its 5G technology, the thought of being dependent on a single supplier made telco executives nervous.

Vodafone's response was to back open radio access network (RAN) technology. In traditional networks supplied by Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, all the products for a given site are sourced from one of those vendors. With open RAN, new interfaces supposedly make it easier to combine vendors without risking interoperability problems. Vodafone and others hoped this would buoy specialists and guarantee alternatives. Previously excluded from deals because they lacked end-to-end systems, smaller companies would be able to compete.

Figure 1:

One of Vodafone UK's open RAN sites in southwest England. (Source: Vodafone UK)

One of Vodafone UK's open RAN sites in southwest England.
(Source: Vodafone UK)

The operator subsequently kicked off a project to replace 2,500 Huawei sites with open RAN technology. This would leave roughly 3,500 other sites where the Chinese vendor's products were also being used, according to figures Vodafone shared at a press briefing in 2019. It has always been coy about its plans for the rest of the Huawei estate, but executives have previously expressed interest in taking open RAN well beyond the initial 2,500-site deployment.

Yet this now seems less likely. Instead of using open RAN, Vodafone asked Ericsson, its main vendor, to supply RAN products for other Huawei sites, according to multiple sources close to the matter. Work by the Swedish vendor is well advanced, say those sources, and dates back two years, according to one of them. As the sole supplier for the remainder of the Huawei estate, Ericsson would account for more than 85% of Vodafone UK's entire RAN, based on the 2019 figures. Company representatives chose not to comment.

Sweet 16

An earlier decision to expand Ericsson's role may have reflected concerns about open RAN and its readiness for commercial use. It is now more than two years since Vodafone first unveiled its open RAN suppliers, and yet the operator has only just started its commercial rollout. Until as recently as last week, the deployment had been limited to 16 trial sites in southwest England. Government rules require UK telcos to remove all Huawei 5G products from their networks by the end of 2027.

The broader industry remains worried about the suitability of the current open fronthaul interface – developed by the O-RAN Alliance, a telco-led group – for massive MIMO, an antenna-rich 5G technology that shows up increasingly in requests for proposal. The O-RAN Alliance has now signed off on optional technical modifications to the spec, but this happened as recently as June. Products based on those modifications will not be commercially available right now.

In the meantime, Vodafone's plans are based heavily around the use of Samsung. While the whole purpose of the open fronthaul spec is to ensure one company's RAN software can be matched with another supplier's radio technology, Vodafone is taking both these critical components from the South Korean vendor, as it would in a traditional network. NEC was named as a massive MIMO supplier in 2021, implying Samsung's software would also power the Japanese company's radios. But NEC's name was omitted from last week's update when every other supplier was mentioned.

Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone's network architecture director, has also previously voiced concern about the chips used for baseband processing in open RAN technology. Whether these are general purpose processors from Intel or more customized silicon from someone like Marvell, the software they host is not easily portable to other chips. This time last year, Tenorio was calling for the standardization of instruction sets to aid portability between hardware vendors. But there has been no visible sign of progress since then.

For now, Vodafone is using Intel's chips in conjunction with Samsung's software. A technique called "lookaside" acceleration offloads the most demanding functions onto other Intel silicon. The "inline" alternative, deemed more energy efficient by some technology executives, is to offload a bigger number of functions onto a customized chip. And Samsung also has a partnership with Marvell, a major inline sponsor. But introducing Marvell into Vodafone's network would mean using alternative code from that written for Intel's chips.

Invasion of the Swedes

Vodafone's wider use of Ericsson as opposed to new open RAN vendors would have major implications. In 2019, its RAN was divided between Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, while its mobile core network came chiefly from Cisco. No one could accuse it of relying too much on any one big mobile vendor. Four years later, it has substituted Ericsson for Nokia and it appears to have moved or be moving Ericsson into parts of the Huawei estate as well. Currently, its only other RAN supplier with a long-term UK future is Samsung. And in the mobile core, it is switching from Cisco to Ericsson. The Swedish company looks more critical to Vodafone UK than it ever has before.

Using Ericsson would not preclude a future switch to open RAN. And while the Swedish company does not currently market any open RAN products, it is active in the O-RAN Alliance and was a major sponsor of recent modifications to the open fronthaul interface. "Ericsson is betting the company on open RAN over the long term," said Mike Murphy, the chief technology officer for Ericsson's North American business, at Informa's Big 5G Event in Austin several months ago. "That is why we're obsessive about getting the foundations and building blocks right."

None of this will be welcomed by smaller open RAN players, which are having a difficult year due partly to a spending slowdown in the mobile infrastructure market. Omdia, a sister company to Light Reading, expects open RAN's share of the market to be 7% this year, up from 6% in 2022, but specialists such as Mavenir and Rakuten Symphony are struggling. The drip feed of news about technical concerns, slow-going deployment and an increasingly active Ericsson seems unlikely to perk them up.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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