As expected, open RAN turned out to be a hot topic at MWC again this year with around 46 demos of O-RAN technology. On the operator side, there were a number of notable announcements from major legacy operators in Europe as well as NTT DoCoMo in Japan demonstrating continued progress towards more open RAN deployments.
Vodafone: 30% open RAN by 2030
Vodafone recently switched on its first open RAN 5G site, the first such site in the UK and also the first macro open RAN site in the UK. The base station uses Samsung’s vRAN technology platform including the vendor’s own radios, with Intel Xeon based servers from Dell running a Wind River cloud platform. Capgemini Engineering and Keysight Technologies are providing the testing and acceleration. Vodafone announced that open RAN 4G and 5G antennas will be deployed from mid-2022 once interoperability tests have been completed.
Vodafone reiterated its plans to have 2,500 open RAN sites live by 2027 (the deadline for removing Huawei RAN infrastructure) and claims that 30% of all its European sites will be using open RAN by 2030.
Telefonica: small cell open RAN
Telefonica is the only other European operator to announce a major commitment to deploy open RAN. The Spanish company has announced that it will build out open RAN pilot sites in its core markets of Brazil, Germany, Spain and the UK to around 800 sites and that open RAN will constitute 50% of all new base stations by 2025. At MWC, the operator announced that it had deployed open RAN small cells in Munich, using radios from Airspan Networks, Altiostar’s vRAN software and NEC providing overall integration services. Telefonica plans to use open RAN based technology to provide densification of its 5G network in Germany.
Orange: 2030 2G/3G switch-off target
Orange has already announced some ambitious goals declaring that all new hardware sourced by Orange in Europe should have open RAN interfaces from 2025 onwards. At MWC, the operator announced that it intends to switch-off its 2G and 3G networks by 2030. This involves phasing out 3G in Europe, except in its domestic market with 2G following by 2030. In France, 2G will be switched off by 2025 and 3G by the end of 2028.
Deutsche Telekom – open RAN mMIMO tests
Deutsche Telekom announced that it has deployed mMIMO radios using the O-RAN fronthaul specification at its O-RAN Town, a small open RAN test deployment outside Berlin. The operator is also the lead company behind a new open RAN testing lab called “i14y” with the aim of accelerating the deployment of open RAN and other disaggregated network architectures.
NTT DoCoMo: OREC and Shared Lab
NTT DoCoMo probably has the longest history of deploying open RAN having deployed the technology in its 4G networks several years ago. It now claims that it has around 10,000 open RAN base station sites as well as being the first operator to launch a commercial open RAN 5G service.
Although not physically present at MWC, NTT DoCoMo provided details of its latest open RAN initiatives, including its open RAN ecosystem (OREC), which currently consists of 13 vendor partners: AMD, Dell, Fujitsu, HPE, Intel, Mavenir, NEC, NTT Data, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Red Hat, VM Ware and Wind River – an interesting cross-section of competing vendors. The company hopes that OREC will accelerate open RAN deployments around the world.
The operator also provided an update on its Shared Lab initiative, essentially a vRAN testbed, which enables different combinations of open RAN components to be tested together. Counterpoint Research believes that NTT DoCoMo probably has more experience of open RAN interoperability testing than any other operator. At MWC, it announced that it was opening up its Shared Lab to other operators across the world. This will eliminate to need for other operators to build their own in-house labs, potentially saving time and money. Interestingly, the facility is available virtually and this was demonstrated at MWC. During 2022, NTT DoCoMo plans to accelerate its Shared Lab activities and is currently in discussions with other operators, notably South Korean operators, including Korea Telecom.
As the announcements at MWC show, there is an increasing momentum behind open RAN from some of the biggest operators in Europe and Japan, with progress being made in overcoming the key challenges of interoperability testing and integration.
Resolving other challenges, such as performance, i.e. capacity and power consumption issues, will depend upon the availability of new merchant silicon solutions, which will dictate whether mMIMO radios can be used in open RAN networks. Commercial availability (from one vendor, Marvell) is only expected to start at the end of 2022. Although providing a major performance improvement compared to current Intel FlexRAN-based systems,* it remains to be seen how these first-generation, horizontally disaggregated systems compare with the best integrated systems from the likes of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia. As a result, it is likely that the majority of open RAN deployments will still be non-mMIMO deployments during the next 2-3 years.
In many cases, open RAN deployments will also depend upon the pace of 2G/3G switch-off and the need to avoid disruption to customers as legacy platforms are phased out. Hence the targets set by operators may well be missed. In addition, Counterpoint Research doubts that the cost of open RAN multi-vendor networks will turn out to be lower than single-vendor networks, as the need for integration and interoperability testing represents significant additional costs. Cheerleaders aside, the mainstream adoption of disaggregated networks will only happen when the operational benefits and flexibility offered by open RAN (and proprietary vRAN alternatives) outweigh and compensate for the hardware, power and system integration costs, while attaining the same high-level of network performance.
*Intel is fighting back – with new initiatives on several fronts, including with Cohere Technologies!