Vodafone unveils its Open RAN vendors for UK rollout

  • Vodafone has identified six vendor partners for its UK Open RAN rollout
  • Capgemini Consulting, Dell, Keysight Technologies, NEC, Samsung and Wind River get the call-up
  • Rollout plans also include use of radio units based on TIP’s Evenstar specs
  • Samsung emerges as a key partner
  • Vodafone also unveils ‘digital skills hubs’ in Spain and Germany to support its Open RAN and other developments

Vodafone has identified its initial set of vendor partners for the planned rollout of Open RAN-based 4G/5G mobile network sites in the UK, with Capgemini Consulting, Dell, Keysight Technologies, NEC, Samsung and Wind River landing key roles in what will be one of the first significant deployments of Open RAN technology in Europe.

Vodafone announced last year it would use Open RAN solutions at an initial 2,500 rural sites (originally announced as 2,600) across the south-west of England and this, as well as coverage throughout Wales, will be Vodafone’s focus for the rollout with the partners announced today. (See Vodafone commits to Open RAN rollout in UK, plans R&D labs across Europe.)

The remote radio units will be supplied by Samsung, which, along with NEC, will also provide Massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output) radio technology. Samsung is also the “reference” supplier of the all-important virtualized radio access network software. 

But in addition to sourcing radio units from Samsung, Vodafone is also developing its own radios based on the Evenstar specifications developed by the Telecom Infra Project (TIP): Perhaps not surprisingly, Vodafone has been, and still is, a contributor to the Evenstar project.  

Vodafone’s Head of Group Network Architecture Yago Tenorio noted last October, when outlining the results of a Vodafone Open RAN radio hardware RFI process, that its own Evenstar-based radio unit had come in third overall in its assessment ranking, and clearly the operator feels enough progress has been made with that design since then to select it for the UK rollout. (See Vodafone IDs Open RAN radio unit frontrunners.)

But decisions are still to be made for the Evenstar radio partner(s), though Vodafone says that Evenstar radio units should be generally availability from the start of next year, though timings will depend on frequency bands and specific technology component selections.  

And what about the radio unit economics? Will Vodafone achieve the Open RAN holy grail of sourcing radios for less than $1,000 per unit? The operator declined to share any financials…

It’s also worth noting that, in that RFI results announcement, while NEC was identified as one of the lead radio technology contenders, Samsung didn’t get a namecheck on that occasion, so it may be a surprise inclusion to some in the sector. “We are proud that this collaboration with Vodafone — one of the premier carriers in the world — will be the first scaled deployment of our pioneering 5G technologies in Europe, including vRAN and O-RAN,” noted Paul Kyungwhoon Cheun, President and Head of Networks Business at Samsung Electronics. “This is a major step forward, as more operators are transitioning into new RAN technologies to prioritize user experience and efficiency. We look forward to continue leading the way in 5G innovation to meet our customer’s highest standards of performance, functionality and reliability.”

Dell is supplying its Dell EMC PowerEdge servers for the distributed unit and centralized unit (DU/CU) deployments. Those servers will run Wind River Studio cloud-native software, which will act as the distributed cloud software platform that will host Samsung’s vRAN software and other Open RAN applications. 

Capgemini Engineering, which, as a result of last year’s Altran acquisition, is a participant in Vodafone’s recently announced Open RAN lab at its UK headquarters in Newbury, will provide integration support and services, while Keysight is providing its Open RAN systems for all manner of conformance and interoperability testing. (Altran may not be a name synonymous with mobile infrastructure developments, but its RAN software expertise comes from the acquisition in 2018 of Aricent, a company with which many in the industry will be familiar.) 

Vodafone also notes that the O-RAN Alliance 7-2x split, which defines the interface between the radio antenna and the distributed baseband unit, will be used, “following successful test and simulations that make it the option of choice.” 

And in a nod to concerns about whether Open RAN deployments will be more power-hungry than traditional RAN deployments, the operator also noted that “the resulting Open RAN network is expected to improve energy efficiency compared to the existing solution from traditional widely deployed RAN products.”

Vodafone says it has started lab work with this vendor selection and expects to start deployments during the next few months, though it hasn’t said when it expects commercial services delivery using those deployments to start.  

And while not called out explicitly in the list of chosen vendors, Intel was also called out in its announcement as a key partner in these developments. The operator has “an important research & development (R&D) collaboration with Intel, whose role in developing Open RAN is widely recognized in the industry.” The operator also called out Qualcomm as a chip vendor that would be playing a role in its Open RAN plans in the future. 

It’s worth noting that while this is a significant announcement for Vodafone and the partners selected on this occasion, this is just the tip (no pun intended…) of the iceberg in terms of the operator’s Open RAN plans. These companies are the initial selection for the start of the rollout in the UK, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be joined by others or even replaced as the UK deployment broadens to other areas, particularly once Open RAN is deemed ready for Vodafone’s urban networks across the UK.

And then there’s the rest of the Vodafone empire to consider too: Vodafone, which is one of the leading operator voices in TIP, the O-RAN Alliance and one of the main signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on The Implementation of Open RAN Based Networks In Europe along with Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefónica and TIM (Telecom Italia), says it is “also working to launch Open RAN in other countries within both Europe and Africa.”

It’s also working on multiple different aspects of Open RAN too, with a broad variety of vendor partners: The operator recently the successful test of a 5G Open RAN deployment managed by a RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), with companies such as VMware, Cohere Technologies, Intel involved, alongside Capgemini Engineering and TIP. (See Vodafone boasts 5G Open RAN milestone with RIC evaluation.)

All of which highlights the important role that Vodafone’s labs and R&D centres are playing in fostering emerging talent and encouraging innovation in the mobile infrastructure sector. The operator also noted today that the Newbury lab “will be complemented by two newly created European digital skills hubs in Málaga and Dresden, employing 600 and 200 people respectively. Opening later this year, the skill hubs will be used to develop a number of new solutions for businesses, including cyber security, mobile private networks and Open RAN.”

And to help steer the vendor community in the right direction, the European operator quintet behind the MoU have started issuing documents that spell out exactly what they need to accelerate the development, testing and deployment of OpenRAN-based networks. (See Open RAN MoU operators publish their tech wish list and What’s up with… EXFO, Open RAN tech priorities, mmWave in Europe, Orange.)

The UK Open RAN rollout provides an excellent shop window for the vendor partners identified today, and is another catalyst for further Open RAN developments, but it’s just one of the early steps on what will be a long journey during the rest of this decade. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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