Virgin Media O2 dips its toes into Open RAN with 4G deployment

  • O2, now merged with Virgin Media, has been exploring the potential of Open RAN for years
  • Now the UK operator has deployed live Open RAN sites in its commercial network
  • But it’s only a handful of sites and is currently focused on providing 4G services
  • CTO bigs up Open RAN’s potential but this initial step is tentative 
  • The broader industry will be looking for bigger case studies and concrete proof points in the months to come

Virgin Media O2 is the latest UK mobile operator to add Open RAN sites to its commercial network following successful trials with NEC and Rakuten Symphony, the Open RAN-focused vendor spin-out from Japanese mobile operator Rakuten Mobile. 

But like many brownfield mobile operators that have built their networks using traditional mobile networking technology from established vendors such as Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia, Virgin Media O2’s initial steps are small and tentative. 

The initial “multi-vendor Open RAN system deployment on macro [network] sites” encompasses just five sites in rural and suburban areas, all in the English county of Northamptonshire. The sites are managing 4G/LTE traffic, with 5G service capabilities to be added later, according to the operator.    

The Virgin Media O2 team isn’t sharing any information currently about the potential capacity of each site, and won’t say what its plans are for the future in terms of the percentage of its sites that might include Open RAN-enabled systems.   

So the initial step to add Open RAN systems to its network has taken place, but it’s a case of dipping a very small toe into a very large ocean.

The operator, though, is clearly pleased with its efforts. “The successful activation of Virgin Media O2's first UK macro-sites demonstrates the potential of the multi-vendor Open RAN model,” noted Jeanie York, CTO at Virgin Media O2. “We are strong believers in the power of diverse Open RAN ecosystems, and in NEC, we have a partner that really shares our view. Its industry-leading system integration capabilities are integral in helping us deliver the mobile networks of the future, today," she added. 

Of course, Virgin Media O2 isn’t the only UK operator exploring the potential of Open RAN. At the start of this year, Vodafone announced it had added an Open RAN-enabled site to its UK 5G network as the opening gambit in its UK Open RAN rollout, about which we should be hearing more soon. During a recent briefing with the media, Yago Tenorio, network architecture director at Vodafone, noted the operator is working towards having a “golden cluster” of between 16 and 20 Open RAN sites in the seaside town of Torquay. “That is a very interesting cluster because it's urban… and that means massive MIMO,” noted Tenorio. 

That’s still a very small step in the grand scheme of things, of course, though Tenorio stressed that Vodafone, in common with other Open RAN hopefuls in the operator community, is still very much on a learning curve and is taking its developments step by step, with a timeline that should not be a surprise to anyone in the industry. After all, it’s still only 2022 and the Vodafone Group target is to have 30% of its European mobile network footprint as Open RAN deployments by 2030. (That means, of course, that 70% of the footprint is set to be running traditional ‘closed’ technology.)

Deutsche Telekom is another operator that is bullish about the potential of Open RAN from all manner of perspectives (operational, economic, sustainability), but it also is moving cautiously. It is still on a voyage of discovery with its O-RAN Town deployment in Neubrandenburg, near Berlin, and while there are many encouraging developments, there are also many challenges to overcome, noted Petr Ledl, the German operator’s head of Open RAN research and trials during a presentation at the recent i14y lab summit in Berlin – see Deutsche Telekom's six steps to Open RAN success

So it is taking years for experienced operators with plenty of research and development resources to achieve what are, at the end of the day, relatively risk-free and small field trials. It’s the same too with Virgin Media O2 which, one must remember, is 50% owned by Spanish giant Telefónica (the other half by Liberty Global). 

Telefónica is another of Open RAN’s vocal champions – along with Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone it is one of the original signatories of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) that was announced in early 2021 and which has since been updated and expanded in an effort to encourage others to invest in and explore the potential of disaggregated, open radio access networks – see Open RAN MoU telcos tackle energy efficiency and security as they provide tech update.

While Virgin Media O2 doesn’t want to talk about the scale of any future rollouts, Telefónica noted in September last year that it planned to have at least 800 Open RAN sites in commercial use across its four main markets (Spain, Germany, UK, Brazil) starting this year as part of a rollout programme involving NEC as the key systems integration partner – see Telefónica and NEC to build Open RAN live pilots in 4 global markets as a key milestone toward mass deployment.

Telefónica noted at the time that the Open RAN solutions to be used comprised “an ecosystem of NEC’s own products as well as software and hardware products of trusted industry leading partners.” Rakuten Symphony’s software is clearly part of that mix but NEC isn’t sharing the identities of any other partners, though it did confirm to TelecomTV that non-NEC radio units are part of the mix. 

Those 800 sites are just the beginning for Telefónica, which expects large swathes of its 5G rollouts to be Open RAN-based in the coming years, but at the moment, with further announcements still to come about initial toe-in-the-water deployments in Spain, Germany and Brazil – and further announcements about the UK – it’s still early days. 

It should be noted, though, that for Virgin Media O2, NEC isn’t the only key Open RAN partner – the operator has already started deploying 4G and 5G RAN gear from Samsung Networks that is “Open RAN compliant” and which could, therefore, become part of a multi-vendor site rollout in the future – see What’s up with... Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile US, Virgin Media O2 and Samsung, Vodafone.

What the broader industry will be looking for is some kind of indication that any investment of time, energy, people and cash in Open RAN developments will be worth it in the long run, and they’ll be looking for that in the coming months. If the industry gets to 2023 without any evidence that Open RAN deployments for brownfield operators are worthwhile, doubts will start to grow about whether this open, multi-vendor alternative to the major RAN system suppliers is something to include in the 5G rollout plans for the rest of the decade. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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