3G will hold up Vodafone UK’s Open RAN rollout

Ray Le Maistre
By Ray Le Maistre

Sep 1, 2021

  • Vodafone UK is planning to deploy Open RAN at thousands of sites
  • But its Open RAN systems won’t support 3G
  • For mass rollout, the operator will need to switch off 3G
  • That 3G switch-off is years away...

The pace of Vodafone UK’s Open RAN rollout during the coming years will be impacted by the operator’s timetable to switch off its 3G network, its Head of Performance and Radio, Ker Anderson, noted during a media briefing held in London on Wednesday.

Vodafone Group is among the leading flag wavers for Open RAN and is planning to deploy networks based on the open, disaggregated architecture across its European markets in the coming years: To further the pace of Open RAN development it is working with other major operators to share technology requirements and support an ecosystem of Open RAN technology developers in the region.

In the UK it has already committed to deploying Open RAN at more than 2,500 sites before 2027 and in June announced its initial Open RAN technology partners. (See Vodafone unveils its Open RAN vendors for UK rollout.) 

But that rollout looks like it’s going to be very back-end loaded because its Open RAN solution, comprising elements from multiple suppliers (including remote radio units and virtual RAN software from Samsung Networks) will not support 3G. And while the operator will be prepared to run a small number of early Open RAN sites alongside its existing legacy 3G gear, that’s not an option at scale: “It would create a dog’s dinner of capabilities.... it would be a performance nightmare” to run Open RAN supporting 2G, 4G and 5G alongside legacy equipment just supporting 3G. 

As a result, any widespread deployment of Open RAN by Vodafone UK will only happen once it has switched off its 3G network and that’s something that’s not happening any time soon, though very likely to happen during the next five years, noted Anderson.

While he would like to turn off 3G quickly and so be able to re-farm the 900MHz spectrum currently supporting 3G services for the operator’s 4G services (which account for more than 90% of its data traffic currently), there are still too many customers signed up to 3G subscriber packages, and using devices that don’t support 4G, to be able to do that any time soon. 

The plan, then, is to hold off on a large part of the Open RAN rollout until 3G is switched off and then deploy the new Open RAN gear while swapping out the Huawei equipment that needs to be expunged from the network to meet UK government timescales. But right now there isn’t an exact timetable for that process.

A Vodafone spokesman added that it was “fair to say that Open RAN will thrive where 3G is not a barrier.”

In the meantime, the Vodafone UK team continues to put its Open RAN vendors through their paces in its labs. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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