Vodafone commits to Open RAN rollout in UK, plans R&D labs across Europe

  • UK operation to use Open RAN tech at a minimum 2,600 locations
  • At least 20% of all UK sites will be built using disaggregated architectures
  • But this isn’t happening overnight – that target is for 2027
  • Vodafone is also planning a number of Open RAN R&D labs across Europe

In an effort to accelerate activity by, and investments in, the Open RAN tech developer community, and to entice other operators to make firm commitments to alternative radio access network deployments, Vodafone has detailed its Open RAN deployment plans for the UK and says it plans to open a number of Open RAN R&D labs across Europe.

The operator, one of the leading operator voices supporting Open RAN developments, says it will deploy the open interface, disaggregated radio access network technology at a minimum of 2,600 sites in the UK by 2027, the year by which UK operators must have rid themselves of Huawei gear. [NOTE: The minimum number of sites planned was subsequently updated to 2,500 by Vodafone.]

Vodafone, like other operators, is keen to diversify its pool of tech suppliers as it rolls out its 5G network and benefit from innovative developments coming from sources other than the traditional mobile network infrastructure market (Ericsson and Nokia, in addition to the increasingly ostracised Huawei). 

Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty outlined the plans in a conversation with the Financial Times (subscription required), but a Vodafone spokesperson fleshed out the strategy in a call with TelecomTV.

The 2,600 sites is a minimum commitment: That number of sites, which have already been identified and which are in rural areas of the UK (in the south-west), will be built out with Open RAN technology. Vodafone has started its vendor evaluation process, expects to select its suppliers in 2021, and will begin deployments in 2022. 

It is not sharing any details about the capex it has set aside for Open RAN or which companies are at the front of the queue to be selected, though the likes of US vendor Mavenir and UK startup Lime Micro, which have been working with Vodafone UK on Open RAN trials in Wales, will clearly be hoping to be involved. But there will be plenty of competition from other specialists, such as Altiostar, Parallel Wireless and Comba Telecom, as well as bigger names such as Fujitsu and NEC (which, with Altiostar, is working on Open RAN trials with Vodafone Netherlands). 

The operator, as announced earlier this month, has been evaluating Open RAN radio hardware and has already concluded which companies are leading the way. (See Vodafone IDs Open RAN radio unit frontrunners.)

But Vodafone would like to use Open RAN technology more extensively in the UK, including in urban areas, but wants the vendor community to step up its efforts to help Open RAN technology hit the more rigorous benchmarks needed for high-capacity, high-volume data traffic zones. It is hoping that by making this commitment to a fairly sizeable deployment that it can tempt other operators to do the same, light an even bigger fire underneath the Open RAN market, accelerate developments to make Open RAN technology more suited to urban deployments, and then feel able to make a similar commitment to urban deployments in years to come. (Obviously, Rakuten Mobile, with its 5G Open RAN deployments in Japan, would say it’s ready for prime time already…) 

The operator is also planning an unspecified number of Open RAN R&D labs around Europe, but is still in the process of deciding on the best locations based on available talent and local government support. Vodafone has  

As well as encouraging other operators to commit to Open RAN investments and deployments, Vodafone is also hoping that its decision will kickstart some Open RAN startup activity in the UK, particularly related to chipset development, and is hoping that the UK government will see fit to provide support for such developments and help to develop a UK stronghold of 5G-related R&D activity. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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