Vodafone drops OpenRAN bombshell

At the TIP Summit in Amsterdam Vodafone announced it was thinking of shifting all of its European mobile sites to OpenRAN technology

The thinking has got so far that is set to issue a 5G tender, which would involve up to 100,000 sites, for the work, according to Light Reading. The announcement was made live on stage by Yago Tenorio, Vodafone’s head of network strategy, on the opening morning of the latest TIP (Telecoms Infra Project) Summit.

“It is a really significant opportunity for OpenRAN to scale,” said Tenorio. “We are willing to swap out sites if we have to. The ambition is to have modern, up-to-date, lower-cost kit in every site. We are not announcing the results today because this just kicked off but stay tuned because it may be a significant acceleration of the open RAN ecosystem.”

The main point of OpenRAN is to loosen the stranglehold the big kit vendors have over the RAN market with their proprietary technology by commoditising it. Vodafone’s move coincides with the commencement of its European 5G roll-out and at a time when it remains unclear which vendors will be allowed to participate in which countries.

It looks like TIP itself is quite heavily involved in pushing OpenRAN, having issued a request for information to the equipment industry on how to build a 5G network based on it, that will run on other commoditized tech such as x86 servers and use open interfaces. Apparently none of the big three kit vendors responded to the request, but plenty of other companies did, with Samsung especially putting itself in a strong position, so it looks like this could really shake things up.

MTN adds credibility to the OpenRAN movement

MTN has announced it will be partnering with Parallel Wireless to deploy 5,000 OpenRAN sites across its network.

The Parallel Wireless OpenRAN solution will allow MTN to deliver 2G, 3G and 4G connectivity simultaneously, targeting areas which are currently unconnected.

“OpenRAN is certainly not new to MTN. Our Group Technology teams concluded field trials in Zambia in 2018, deploying commercial sites from the start of 2019,” said Dirk Karl, Chief Procurement Officer at MTN.

“Our team has steadily been focused on creating viable RAN solutions alongside the traditional deployments of network technology suppliers in order to accelerate the rural expansion in our markets.”

Although OpenRAN has certainly attracted some attention, it is yet to make a significant splash in the telco pond. Emerging from the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), OpenRAN is an initiative to define and build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology.

Speaking to Telecoms.com on the side-lines of AfricaCom, Christoph Fitih of Parallel Wireless highlighted that the deal provides some much-needed credibility to the OpenRAN movement.

This is the challenge when it comes to OpenRAN. Many telcos understand the value the technology can offer, though telcos are traditional organisations. Most are incredibly risk-adverse, especially the smaller telcos, arguably the ones who will gain the most from OpenRAN. New ideas scare the telco industry.

From Fitih’s perspective, MTN’s confidence in OpenRAN validates the technology. Incorporating OpenRAN into its network should spark an interest in the minds of competitors, offering the movement confidence.

Whether this proves to be the spark which ignites the OpenRAN fire remains to be seen, though a stamp of approval from one of Africa’s most prominent and influential telcos certainly provides some weighty credibility.

100% of telcos are investigating the promise of OpenRAN – survey

With monstrous investments on the horizon, it seems the telco community is keeping a close eye on the development of OpenRAN technologies.

While you always have to take survey results with a pinch of salt, Mavenir and Senza Fili are claiming momentum is gathering behind the Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP) OpenRAN initiative. 100% of the respondents to the survey suggested they were investigating the application of OpenRAN for one scenario or another.

What is worth noting, is that trialling and testing the technology is very different from commercial deployment, thought the results do perhaps suggest the industry is sick of the status quo and would welcome some sort of disruption to ease the financial burden.

68% of the respondents claim they or the wider business is exploring OpenRAN for densification demands, 47% pointed towards greenfield deployments in urban environments, 42% are looking to replace their incumbent suppliers and 5% are seeking validation in the rural areas.

Whatever the reason, the tier-one vendors in the network infrastructure segments should watch these developments with care.

Interestingly enough, the results of this survey are being touted at the same time as a Vodafone win for the OpenRAN initiative. The telco recently announced plans to trial OpenRAN deployments in 100+ rural locations across the UK. The reasoning behind this trial; to reduce the cost of network deployment and create new opportunities to work with alternative suppliers.

When you consider the majority of network deployment investment is geared towards the access network, you can start to see why a lack of competition is concerning telcos. Another factor to consider is the role of Huawei. If the US Government gets its way, either bankrupting the Chinese vendor or getting it banned from markets, there is even less competition, enhancing the risk of increased prices.

However, those privileged vendors sitting comfortably at the top of the ecosystem might be given some relief. Firstly, these are only trials not commercial deployment. OpenRAN might be a nice idea, but telcos will be hard-pushed to replace a tried and tested solution; interest and signing cheques are two very different matters.

Secondly, the industry is still clearly concerned with how much of a valid alternative OpenRAN actually is. When looking at the barriers, 28% are worried the performance won’t match the status quo, while 14% are focused on interoperability and 11% on maturity. It isn’t clear whether this is maturity of the technology or the new vendors entering the ecosystem, but both would be a concern for anyone handing over vast sums of cash.

OpenRAN does seem to be gathering pace, and while there is still a lot to prove when it comes to overhauling proven relationships and suppliers, the quest for more efficient investments is clear to see.

Vodafone searches for supply chain rejig through OpenRAN

Vodafone has announced it will introduce OpenRAN technology in various parts of its UK network, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.

In what appears to be an effort to break down barriers to work with new vendors, Vodafone will seek to empower the ecosystem through the introduction of commoditised hardware. This is the first trial of the technology in a ‘developed’ market, leaning on trials which have taken place in Turkey and South Africa.

“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,” said Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

“OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind.”

Launched through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), the OpenRAN initiative aims to build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology. With vendor-neutral hardware hitting the networks, the aim is to reduce reliance on a small number of vendors, de-couple the hardware and software components of the network more stringently and reduce the vast expenditure made on network infrastructure.

The UK trial will focus on rural locations, perhaps to reduce the exposure of failure. These are also the cell sites which will cost the most and offer the smallest profits. There is a lot to gain here, while the consequence of failure will be limited.

“Encouraging the emergence of new suppliers would give operators greater choice in a far healthier ecosystem,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Disrupting the status quo could, in particular, make the economics of network deployment stack up in rural areas or hard-to-reach locations, for which roll-out may not currently be viable or cost effective.

“Improving network economics and better monetising infrastructure assets is an important focus of Vodafone CEO Nick Read as the company seeks to achieve ambitious cost-saving targets.”

Like many of the worlds’ telcos, Vodafone is slowing stumbling towards a tricky situation with its supply chain, though many of the issues are outside the control of the company. With Huawei under increasing pressure, the future does look glum for a segment of the ecosystem which is already under-populated.

However, the telcos are not completely blameless in this situation. Investments have been concentrated with the three major vendors in this space (Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia). Through prioritising these companies as primary vendors, challengers have not been given the opportunity to scale and compete. Another complaint levelled at the telcos has been a comprehensive and convoluted procurement process, which has inhibited the ability of smaller players to compete against the status quo.

When the industry is running smoothly, few would have complained with the concentration of investment to a small number of vendors, but there are wrenches being thrown into the works all over the place.

With Huawei potentially facing bans in numerous countries and its supply chain being compromised thanks to the entry onto the US Entity List, a major vendor is under threat. Although Huawei has confirmed it is producing products free of US components, the performance of this equipment is unknown for the moment. Worst-case scenario, the vendor community could become a lot smaller.

Vodafone is one company which does look to be exposed to the Huawei conundrum. UK CTO Scott Petty has said banning Huawei would set the company back two years in its quest for 5G, costing millions as the company would be forced to strip the vendors equipment out of its network. Huawei equipment currently accounts for 32% of the 18,000 base stations around the country, though it has plans to strip Nokia equipment out, with Ericsson taking the rest.

Only working with two suppliers is a precarious situation, though this is compounded when you look at the difficulties Huawei is facing. The introduction of OpenRAN might be considered a bold move, but it is starting to look very necessary to enable access to more vendors.

The trials in the UK, DRC and Mozambique will focus on mobile calls and data services across 2G, 3G and 4G, with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future. OpenRAN could be debuted elsewhere across Europe dependent on the success of the trials in the UK.

The team have currently identified 100+ rural locations to trial the technology, though this could be expanded in the future. Vodafone has said OpenRAN could reduce network hardware costs by up to a third, but this is dependent on how the technology and supplier ecosystem develops over time. Mavenir, Parallell Wireless and Lime Microsystems are three new suppliers enabled by the trials, though there are a huge number of start-ups who are connected to TIP.

Although this is a small trial for the moment, it is certainly one worth keeping an eye on. Vodafone is in a slightly tricky position when it comes to its supply chain, though should OpenRAN prove to be successful, numerous options could be opened-up. It is a low risk gamble, though the gains of a new supply chain certainly outweigh the consequence of failure.