Vodafone is to deploy OpenRAN equipment at a minimum of 2,600 of its mobile sites by 2027, helping the operator with efforts to remove Huawei kit from its infrastructure and to diversify its supply chain.
The Radio Access Network (RAN) market has traditionally been dominated by a few major players who offer highly integrated cell sites comprising radio, hardware, and software. This approach has made it difficult for operators to mix and match innovations and has proved to be a significant barrier to entry for smaller vendors.
OpenRAN is a vendor-neutral approach with standardised designs that allow a variety of firms to supply hardware and software. Operators believe this can increase innovation, reduce costs, and reduce dependency on the ‘big three’ of Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.
Vodafone has been a keen supported of the technology and wants to be viewed as a telco leader for the OpenRAN community. It has already staged trials in several European countries and switched on the UK’s first live OpenRAN site in Wales earlier this year.
It believes plans to use OpenRAN at sites across the South West of England and in Wales (excluding the Cardiff area) is the largest single commercial commitment by an operator anywhere. Plans are at an early stage, and vendors yet to be identified, but Vodafone is adamant it would like to go beyond the 2,600 sites already earmarked.
The news is a huge boost for the UK government, which wants to increase the number of RAN suppliers available to the UK after it banned Huawei from participating in the rollout of 5G. Under legislation, operators are banned from purchasing new kit from the company from the end of 2020 and must remove any equipment installed in their networks by 2021.
There have been moves to court Japan’s NEC but OpenRAN support is also a priority.
Vodafone’s rollout of OpenRAN accounts for roughly 35% of the Huawei equipment it needs to swap out, with the firm likely to look to other vendors to meet the shortfall. For example, it is unlikely that OpenRAN will be used in cities in the near future because the limitations of current chipset mean it is difficult to scale performance in urban environments.
Analysts believe the market for OpenRAN technologies will reach $5 billion within five years, and it’s not just new players getting involved. Nokia and Ericsson have both joined the O-RAN Alliance, one of several open RAN organisations, which has a Alliance’s 170-strong membership of operators, vendors and research institutions. Earlier this year, the O-RAN Alliance agreed a partnership with mobile industry body, the GSMA.
Nokia also plans to integrate Open RAN interfaces and capabilities to its AirScale radio platform later this year.