Last year, Vodafone announced plans to deploy open RAN across 2,500 rural sites in the UK, in what would be the largest commitment yet by an established MNO. This week, the operator provided more details about the proposed deployment. Vodafone announced that deployments are expected to start later this year and that the radio-base station interface will be based on the O-RAN 7.2x fronthaul specification. The MNO recently established a test and integration lab at its Newbury headquarters and this facility will be used extensively to test and integrate network elements.
Vodafone’s Open RAN Vendor Ecosystem
Vodafone provided details about its vendor ecosystem and the partners that will be supplying and testing its open RAN network. Key players include:
- vRAN Software Platform – Samsung, an existing 4G/5G infrastructure incumbent, will provide the all important open virtualized RAN reference software which will run on Intel’s FlexRAN architecture.
- Radios – again Samsung will be a key vendor for radios together with NEC as a second supplier. Both will supply a range of radios, including mMIMO models. In addition, Vodafone also expects to include radios developed as part of the Evenstar radio programme, a joint venture between Facebook and others.
- COTS Servers – will be provided by server giant Dell EMC using its latest PowerEdge servers running Containers-as-a-Service (CaaS) software from Wind River. This will provide the distributed cloud-native platform hosting the open RAN applications and virtualised RAN software from Samsung.
- Testing and Integration – Keysight Technologies with Cap Gemini will be responsible for all lab testing to ensure the interworking of all elements of the network.
Vodafone Is A Big Win for Samsung
Samsung has had little presence in Europe since it was swapped out by Ericsson at Three UK last year. This is its first large-scale deal with an European MNO for a long time. It is therefore a big win for the Korean company and follows its high profile $6.6 billion five-year deal with Verizon in September 2020. Anxious to be seen promoting vendor diversity, Counterpoint Research believes that a deal with Samsung and incumbent Japanese vendors such as NEC was always on the cards. And with the Korean vendor keen to gain a foothold in the European market, Counterpoint suspects that Vodafone was able to negotiate a very good deal with Samsung (particularly on the cost of radios), and most importantly, the option to use a second radio supplier, i.e. NEC. This will enable Vodafone to accelerate its open RAN roadmap in the UK.
As the pre-eminent cheerleader for open RAN, this announcement enables Vodafone to match rhetoric with action for the first time. Counterpoint Research makes the following points about this week’s announcement:
- Incumbent Vendors – rather than partner with some of the smaller open RAN players, Vodafone has chosen Samsung and NEC, both established 4G/5G vendors, for its first substantial open RAN roll-out. Both companies are global technology leaders with huge technical and financial resources. Neither is likely to be acquired or disappear any time soon!
- Single-Vendor Network – Samsung already has experience of deploying its vRAN solutions with NTT DoCoMo and KDDI in Japan and more recently with Verizon in the US. From this week’s announcement, it seems that Vodafone is playing safe here and has chosen what is essentially a single-vendor solution, but with a couple of exceptions, notably on the radio side, but no alternative vRAN software provider. (Of course, it may be that Vodafone has not announced all its vendors yet). In contrast, Rakuten in Japan and Dish in the US have more than 30 vendor partners apiece, although admittedly this is for the complete end-to-end network. Clearly, they love a challenge!
- Blow for Smaller Vendors – this is unfortunately a blow for smaller vendors such as Mavenir and Parallel Wireless who have been involved in trials with Vodafone. More generally, it underlines the difficulty that all small vendors face when dealing with large MNOs. However, both vendors have small commercial agreements with Vodafone and may yet benefit further.
- A Large-Scale Testbed – this is essentially a rural network where coverage rather than capacity will be the priority. It will therefore be less demanding in terms of performance requirements but will serve as an useful large-scale testbed, particularly to evaluate radio interoperability. However, there will be challenges to be overcome, both known and unexpected. Regardless, Counterpoint Research believes that it will take many years before open RAN can compete across the board on price and performance with mainstream technologies. First open RAN needs to learn to walk before it can run. This deployment should go some way to enable that.
- Incumbents Well Placed – as the Vodafone and other deals prove, incumbent vendors seem best placed to deliver open RAN to established MNOs. By developing their own preferred ecosystem with selected software and hardware vendors, incumbents can offer integrated, tried and tested open RAN/vRAN solutions. For MNOs, having experienced vendors capable of integrating complex multi-vendor, multi-G networks will be critical – at least initially. This bodes well for Samsung and Nokia but is perhaps a wake-up call for other incumbents.