Orange unveils Europe’s first 5G SA fully end-to-end experimental cloud network

Global operator to launch region’s first standalone fully end-to-end cloud network from devices to IS in a cloud-native mode

Moving towards a “zero touch network” and aiming to differentiate its services through the quality of experience it offers its customers, global operator Orange is launching what it has claimed will be Europe’s first 5G standalone (SA) network, which will act as a blueprint for the next generation of more efficient and agile infrastructures.

In a project that will run over a two-year period and ramp up to encompass several hundred users, the experimental network will launch in Lannion, France in July, and, regarded as a key step in realising its vision of the future of networks, the experimental network will be a 100% software-enabled network, as well as data and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven, fully automated, and cloud-native.

It will also encompass Open RAN technology – underlining its commitment to the technology. Orange said that by implementing and operating this network, it will enable itself to better understand how these technologies coexist and impact on the network lifecycle.

Furthermore, the firm believes the technology will also enable it to better understand the customer experience benefits of a fully cloudified network, as well as the full potential of AI and data.

It will also enable Orange to determine the future skills needed – a key strand of its Engage 2025 strategy to “co-create a future-facing” company, as well as the environmental benefits – another key pillar of its plans.

Orange is also currently working with partners able to cover all aspects of the network, from the devices to the information systems. For the first stage of the project, the partners include Mavenir for cloud 5G Open RAN, Casa Systems for cloud 5G SA core network, Hewlett Packard Enterprise for Cloud 5G SA subscriber data management (SDM), Dell Technologies for infrastructure and servers supporting RAN Centralised Unit, Distributed Unit and Core and Xiaomi for devices.

It also uses a continuous integration and continuous deployment approach as well as orchestration open source solutions, including GitLab and ONAP, to automate networks and service management.

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The new network will see the setting up of Open RAN and core function on a single Kubernetes-based infrastructure fully managed by Orange and deploying a fully automated core. From July, the network will start using and testing O-RAN radio equipment, containerised network functions (CNFs) on a cloud infrastructure, network data collection and AI automation.

The experimental network will also host operations support system OSS, network inventory management and network operations (Information System OSS); business support system (BSS), CRM and billing; as well as scaling Orange’s ambition using AI to secure and optimise the network and predict its behaviour. In 2022, the network will expand to further locations to increase the number of users and to test vertical use-cases leveraging dynamic network slicing.

Commenting on the launch, Orange chief technology and innovation officer Michaël Trabbia said: “Our ambition is to prepare Orange for the operator of the future by building more resilient and auto-adaptive networks that offer best in class quality of service in each situation. This experimental network represents an important milestone on our way to implement and deploy Open RAN and AI technologies to prepare on-demand connectivity and zero touch operator capabilities.”

The move has received welcome already from the analyst community. Richard Webb, director of  Network Infrastructure at CCS Insight, described the announcement as significant on several fronts.

“First, the fully cloud-based aspect, not only [indicates] Orange’s roadmap towards fully automated, software and AI-driven networks, but also its commitment to Open RAN principles of supplier diversity – with some notable absences from the named technology partners,” he said.

“Second, this sort of project is vital not only in giving operators like Orange a clearer understanding of how Open RAN solutions interoperate but also how cloud-based, software-defined, intelligent networking transform the operator itself, in terms of its own operations.

“This is a 5G Standalone network, considered by many to be the ‘true version’ of 5G in which a richer services environment can be fully realised. Although this experimental network is small-scale to start with, it could provide proof points for enhanced user experiences.”

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