Vodafone unveils first dedicated Open RAN test and integration lab

UK operator adds momentum to digital transformation programme and its transition to a software-orientated technology company with a big step towards readiness to deploy commercial open radio access network platforms

In a move that it says consolidates its leadership in the area, and hot on the heels of the UK government confirming its commitment to accelerating open interface and interoperable communications technologies, Vodafone has opened an open radio access network (Open RAN or O-RAN) test and integration lab at its Newbury technology campus in the UK.

Vodafone sees Open RAN as being able to help it separate the hardware and software components of the network to select optimal solution providers for specific roles, rather than proprietary end-to-end solutions on which most RAN technologies are built. The result of this is that it can tie operators to a small number of suppliers. Based on the concept of interoperability, Open RAN standardises the development of hardware and software components, meaning telecoms operators would be able to source equipment from a wider variety of networks.

Open RAN is also seen by Vodafone as a catalyst in the RAN domain to evolve to become an organisation offering a software-defined and virtualised network with autonomous operation utilising artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The operator sees many benefits to this approach. These include lowering the barrier to entry for RAN companies and increasing the resiliency of the ecosystem, with technology companies able to scale specific capabilities rather than focusing on a complete end-to-end solution. Vodafone said this approach would allow niche technology segments to work with more specialist providers, as well as the ability to work with global IT suppliers and existing platforms brought by the capability to deploy Open RAN on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) general-purpose processor (GPP) platforms widely deployed in IT systems.

It would also allow the company to move from a limited set of research and development (R&D) silos to a more creative network of collaboration for innovation. Vodafone sees Open RAN as allowing broader and more diverse supplier ecosystems, driving innovation and competition with the resultant benefits. This would also allow it to dedicate more resources and investment to software projects, as upgrade paths would no longer be intrinsically linked to hardware components of the network.

The Vodafone facility is designed to provide a state-of-the-art capability not only for itself, but also Open RAN suppliers and partners, to test, validate and prove platforms prior to commercial deployment, as well as provide an environment to nurture the advancement of a still-developing ecosystem. The test and validation lab follows Vodafone’s existing commitments to the Open RAN ecosystem – to develop 2,500 mobile sites with Open RAN technology, providing commercial incentives to the Open RAN ecosystem.

“Open RAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition and carbon savings, but we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem”
Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK

The new lab plans to employ 30 engineers working with suppliers to ensure their products comply with Vodafone and industry Open RAN specifications. This work will focus on all stages of Open RAN, from innovation, development and commercial deployment pre-staging, through to ongoing lifecycle management.

As the technology matures, Vodafone will also explore how Open RAN can be deployed in more complex urban environments, providing more commercial incentives for the ecosystem. To date, Vodafone has several Open RAN sites carrying live traffic in its UK network, having first deployed Open RAN technology at the Royal Welsh Showground in July 2020.

Overall, the company sees the test and integration lab as a key milestone on its path to commercial Open RAN deployment and one that will further enhance Vodafone’s leadership position in the Open RAN ecosystem.

“The Open RAN ecosystem is still in its infancy, and we want to spur its development,” said Vodafone UK chief network officer Andrea Dona. “We want to avoid a Catch-22 situation, where operators wait to buy perfect products, but the Open RAN vendors need investment to perfect their products. This is why we are announcing this investment in a new R&D lab, as well as committing to 2,500 Open RAN sites in the UK countryside. Open RAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition and carbon savings, but we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem.”

Open RAN is also a fundamental part of the UK’s government’s communications diversity strategy, which was announced as it attempted to deal with the ramifications of banning the use of technology from high-risk suppliers such as Huawei from national communications infrastructures.

The plan includes funding an Open RAN trial with Japanese telecoms supplier NEC, which aims to see live 5G Open RAN solutions launched in the UK this year. Open RAN development is also central in recommendations delivered by the UK government’s telecoms diversification task force to ensure diversity and stimulate supply in the market.

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