Mobile services

Vodafone CEO 'Fast Tracks' OpenRAN in Challenge to Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia

For service providers building or upgrading mobile networks, the choice of vendors has never been more limited. Years of consolidation have left the industry with three dominant giants in Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia. Huawei, the biggest, faces possible exclusion from some Western markets amid concern about the role its products could play in Chinese espionage. Bans would leave operators even more dependent on the two Nordic suppliers.

Vodafone is trying to do something about this lack of choice. The UK-based operator has been working with a Facebook-led group called the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), whose goal is to spur innovation and reduce costs in the market for network equipment. Taking advantage of open technology interfaces and a community-based approach to product development, it today boasts hundreds of members, including most of the world's big service providers and numerous startups. Now Vodafone is taking some of the fruits of TIP's labor into global field trials.

OpenRAN, the technology in question, promises an alternative to the Chinese and Nordic giants in the radio access network (RAN), one of the costliest parts of the infrastructure. In a traditional RAN, hardware components and software code are tightly coupled, and interfaces do not support interoperability between different vendors. That means nearly all the equipment comes from the same big supplier. With OpenRAN, and the "virtualization" it brings, operators should be able to run software-based network functions on standard servers. More open interfaces should let them use one supplier's radios with another's processors -- something not currently possible.

Vodafone's Nick Read is taking OpenRAN into field trials.
Vodafone's Nick Read is taking OpenRAN into field trials.

While telco interest in open RAN technologies has been growing for a couple of years, today's announcement is significant for several reasons. The first is that Vodafone is moving the technology out of a lab environment and into a large-scale field trial. It has already started using OpenRAN technology in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique to support some 2G, 3G and 4G services, and says it may add 5G in the future. The rollout follows lab trials in South Africa and Turkey.

The cost attractions of OpenRAN could prove important in such low-income markets. Forecasts show 5G deployment costs falling 30% between now and 2022 if a network is built in the traditional way, but 50% if open architecture is used, says Eugina Jordan, the vice president of marketing for Parallel Wireless, one of the vendors involved in Vodafone's trials. "Twenty percent is a huge difference when we are talking about billions of dollars," she tells Light Reading.

More significantly, Vodafone has also kicked off trials in the UK, one of the world's most developed and competitive mobile markets. While few details have emerged at this stage, it has identified more than 100 possible locations for trials, Light Reading understands. Besides Parallel Wireless, Vodafone is working with another US software company called Mavenir, which last week opened a new research facility in Stockholm. Lime Microsystems, a UK startup whose Open CrowdCell technology is designed for short-range needs, is also involved.

UK policymakers will welcome the move. Amid "Brexit" turmoil -- following the UK vote to leave the European Union during a 2016 referendum -- the government has yet to reveal its Huawei intentions. "We are still waiting for the UK government to make a critical decision about where Huawei can be in the UK's 5G infrastructure," said Wenbing Yao, the vice president of business development for Huawei UK, during the UK-China Tech Forum, a London event organized by the China-Britain Business Council, earlier today. In the current environment, authorities sound as worried as operators about the lack of supplier diversity.

"Supplier concentration is a longer-term issue," said a Vodafone spokesperson when asked if the uncertainty about Huawei had spurred its interest in OpenRAN. Vodafone joined TIP in November 2017, he points out, and was a founding member of the OpenRAN project group. "Trials have gone well though, so as well as extending the usage of OpenRAN in Africa we are fast-tracking it into Europe," he says.

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Nevertheless, as a major Huawei customer, Vodafone CEO Nick Read has previously warned of the disruption an outright ban would cause. After replacing equipment at considerable cost, Vodafone would be left with just two options in some markets. "The market changes a lot when you go down to two players," he told reporters at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. "At the same time, you have to balance resilience at the national level in terms of infrastructure. How do you do that? Suddenly you get inefficiencies injected into that."

Given those earlier remarks about the supply chain, Read's evident interest in OpenRAN also marks out today's announcement. "We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem," he is quoted as saying in Vodafone's press release. The lack of senior management support for innovative network technologies is often blamed for their commercial irrelevance. Read's patronage at such a critical time for the financially squeezed Vodafone could provide the boost they need.

What's more, the details of today's announcement point to much-needed collaboration between two of the industry associations backing open RAN technology. While TIP works on development and trials, another group called the O-RAN Alliance is writing the specifications to support more open, interoperable networks. Addressing some of the concern about the multiplicity of groups targeting the same issue, and a possible fragmentation of industry efforts, Vodafone and Parallel Wireless have confirmed that OpenRAN is fully compatible with O-RAN Alliance specifications. Vodafone's spokesperson describes the two initiatives as "complementary."

OpenRAN is a quandary for the equipment giants, which have diverged in their behavior toward TIP. Worried it has more to lose by ignoring service provider demands, Nokia has become a part of the club. Ericsson remains on the outside and has not been the most active member of the O-RAN Alliance since joining that group earlier this year, says Mikael Rylander, the head of Mavenir's new Stockholm facility and a former Ericsson executive. As for Huawei, the Chinese company is in neither TIP nor the O-RAN Alliance. Open RAN technology is a poor substitute for its dedicated kit, it said when previously asked why it had not followed Ericsson into the latter.

The big challenge for Vodafone and other service providers now trialing OpenRAN is to prove Huawei wrong, and to show that an open architecture featuring numerous suppliers can be an economical alternative to the norm. With so many bills to pay, and the operational complexity a multivendor network brings, that will not be easy.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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