Vodafone tries to kickstart Europe's Open RAN chip R&D scene

  • Vodafone has opened a dedicated Open RAN chip design development facility
  • It is part of the operator’s new R&D labs in Málaga, Spain
  • Operator says about 20 chip developers will be involved in the Open RAN efforts
  • New facility is only one of a number of Vodafone's efforts to catalyze Open RAN ecosystem growth in Europe

Vodafone has bolstered its commitment to Open RAN R&D – and to furthering the development of an Open RAN technology ecosystem in Europe in particular – by opening the region’s “first dedicated R&D centre for the advancement of microchip architecture to power new Open RAN networks.” 

The facility is housed in the operator’s “digital skills hub” in Málaga, Spain (Vodafone’s primary European R&D site), where 50 Open RAN R&D specialists will join the existing 650 software engineers, network architects and other technology experts that will be based at the site, which was announced last June when the operator announced its initial Open RAN vendor partners. (See Vodafone unveils its Open RAN vendors for UK rollout.)

In addition to the 50 staff focused on Open RAN component R&D, Vodafone says about 20 vendors “specialising in chip architecture design and development” will work in partnership with that team, and that a key aim of the Open RAN chip centre will be to establish “a strong ecosystem for silicon design in Europe.”

In the official announcement about the centre, Francisco Martin, Head of Open RAN at Vodafone, noted: “As a pioneer of Open RAN, Vodafone is joining forces with specialist technology companies to expand the ecosystem. Silicon innovation will strengthen Europe’s position in the global market and speed up the roll out of new digital services.”

This desire to build an Open RAN ecosystem in Europe is something that Vodafone executives such as Yago Tenorio, Fellow and Network Architecture Director at the Vodafone Group, have been talking up for some time, as have senior executives from the other major operators from the region that are collaborating on Open RAN development and technology wish lists: Essentially, the operators want to be able to source key Open RAN technology, and have a broader range of supplier options, within the European region and not be totally reliant on imports from Asia or North America (a desire in part driven by increasing geopolitical tensions and the disruption that has been caused in recent years by the ostracization of Huawei). 

For example, Tenorio noted in November 2020 during TelecomTV’s Open RAN Summit: “5G massive MIMO in particular is a complex problem to crack and will require not just a lot of software development but also hardware, in particular semiconductors… we will need new solutions to be developed in terms of chipsets that are powering those efficient, super-complex radios. It is difficult to say how long that is going to take maybe, you know, as little as maybe 12 months [to] 18 months to [achieve a] full solution. It can be later if Open RAN adoption is low in the industry.” (See 5G Massive MIMO is Open RAN’s toughest nut to crack, says Vodafone’s Tenorio.)

So, Vodafone is seeking to accelerate developments in Europe and help the broader ecosystem gain access to the most suitable designs and specifications for the chipsets that will be needed to develop carrier-grade Open RAN-based network elements: Importantly, the operator says the results of the R&D work will be shared with the broader community via industry organizations such as the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and the O-RAN Alliance. 

But which “chip architecture design and development” specialist vendors will be working with Vodafone at the Málaga facility? And how many of them are European? The operator tells TelecomTV that about half of the companies are European, but it is currently unable to share all of the details while agreements are being concluded.

Of the 12 names it can share currently, most are US companies – Analog Devices, Dell, Intel, Maxlinear, Qualcomm, Xilinx and Broadcom (US-based but owned by Singapore’s Avago Technologies) – while five are European, namely Arm (Cambridge, UK, though currently owned by SoftBank and with a currently uncertain future ownership situation), AccelerComm (Southampton, UK), Kalray (Montbonnot-Saint-Martin, France), Lime Microsystems (Guildford, UK) and Picocom (UK-based). [Editor's note: Picocom name corrected after the initial and mistaken use of the name Picochip.]

And, of course, the US companies are major players in the global chip market and some will have staff, facilities, their own R&D facilities and, in the future, even chip manufacturing plants in Europe to meet regional demand: Intel, for example, has major plans to build new fabs in Europe, and chip firms from all over the world will seek to tap into the tens of billions of euros that European Union member countries plan to pump into chip manufacturing facilities in the coming decades. (See Absolutely fab: Intel will pump $80 billion into European chip production.)

The development of the Málaga digital skills site, which will benefit from €225 million in investment during the next five years, is focused on edge computing, private network models, IoT, unified communications, 5G applications and AI, as well as Open RAN. It will be followed by a similar but smaller facility in Dresden, Germany, which is set to open its doors later this year. 

The R&D sites are part of Vodafone’s increasing focus on software-enabled communications networking and applications that will result in 7,000 software engineers being added to Vodafone’s headcount by 2025 as it creates a pan-European technology team (intuitively dubbed Vodafone Technology), a move the operator unveiled last October. (See Vodafone creates pan-European tech team, plans to add 7,000 software experts by 2025.)

This isn’t Vodafone’s only Open RAN technology facility, of course: The labs based at its Newbury, UK-based headquarters have been home to multiple partners that have been fine-tuning and testing the technology being deployed at the operator’s Open RAN-enabled sites, the first of which went live earlier this month. (See Yago Tenorio discusses Vodafone's first commercial Open RAN deployment and Vodafone fires up its first commercial Open RAN site.)

And Vodafone is collaborating with Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefónica at two Open RAN R&D labs in Germany and France. (See Euro telco giants unveil Open RAN labs in Germany and France.)

What Vodafone and its European operator friends will want to see too, though, is more investment (whether private or public) into other facilities, initiatives and/or startups that could lead to the development of a meaningful European next-gen comms networking developer ecosystem so that sooner, rather than later, new names start cropping up as potential developers of interest to network operators and/or systems integrators. (Or, put another way, where is the next AccelerComm coming from?)

Initiatives such as the UK government’s FRANC (Future RAN Competition) might eventually deliver some results, but £36 million spread amongst 15 consortia isn’t going to keep Silicon Valley awake at night...

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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