Vodafone switches on first UK 5G Open RAN site

Vodafone teams with Samsung Networks Europe to switch on the UK’s first Open RAN site to carry live 5G traffic, marking a milestone in the commercial deployment of Open RAN network architectures in Europe, with more than 2,500 additional sites to follow

In what it says is not just a major step for itself but also a major step in supporting the government’s ambition to accelerate the development of the next-generation communications ecosystem, UK operator Vodafone has teamed up with Samsung Networks Europe to announce the UK’s first 5G open radio access network (Open RAN) site.

Vodafone regards Open RAN as a way 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.

It 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 has been ramping up its activities in the field of Open RAN over the past year. In April 2021, it opened an Open RAN test and integration lab at its Newbury technology campus in the UK and in the summer of 2021 it announced that it was working with end-to-end cloud-native communications network software firm Mavenir on a small cell solution based on Open RAN technology to provide indoor connectivity for business customers.

In December 2021, the UK government and telecoms operators announced shared ambitions to expand support for the Open RAN ecosystem following its decision to set up a taskforce to drive diversification in the UK’s telecoms supply chain and reduce reliance on technology from so-called high-risk suppliers such as Huawei in the UK’s national communications infrastructure.

One of the consequences of the decision to ban the use of Huawei was to expose the very limited nature of the UK’s essential comms tech supply. Open RAN development is seen as a way of addressing such issues.

Vodafone has championed the ecosystem since its conception in 2016 and is actively using Open RAN across many parts of the UK. Its first Open RAN site will be in the city of Bath – the first of 2,500 5G and 4G Open RAN sites the operator has committed to.

As part of the first site installation, Vodafone will deploy Open RAN technology, including Samsung virtualised radio access network (vRAN) solutions and 5G radio units; Dell common off-the-shelf (COTS) servers; Intel Xeon processors to enable various technologies including CPU, workload acceleration and connectivity; and the Wind River distributed cloud-native platform hosting the Open RAN applications. Open RAN 4G and 5G antennas from Samsung and NEC will be deployed from mid-2022. Once interoperability tests for these radio units have been completed in the lab, they can be deployed in a ‘plug and play’ manner on the existing Open RAN infrastructure.

In the coming months, Vodafone and Samsung will be testing Samsung vRAN’s performance metrics and features, such as security, inter-radio access technology (inter-RAT) mobility and inter-frequency handover, as well as ensuring compliance with Open RAN specifications.

Samsung’s virtualised, software-based RAN runs on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers, offering features and performance that are equivalent to traditional hardware-based equipment. Using a cloud-native and container-based architecture, the vRAN is said to enable more flexible deployments and network management efficiencies for mobile operators, while helping them meet the demands of deploying new and existing services.

The two companies will also test other advanced network technologies that leverage both LTE and 5G technologies to help enhance mobile user experiences. This includes dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which assigns time-frequency resources based on traffic demands to accommodate users of both LTE and 5G in the same frequency band, and E-UTRAN new radio dual connectivity (EN-DC), which boosts 5G speeds, reliability and coverage by combining the resources of 4G and 5G networks. Testing will occur in the first half of 2022.

Other partners in the project include Capgemini Engineers and Keysight Technologies, which have provided testing and integration services in the Vodafone lab to ensure interoperability of the multi-vendor ecosystem. Once technologies and vendors have been verified as Open RAN-compliant, deployment of equipment becomes a much simpler task.

Commenting on the deployment, Vodafone UK chief network officer Andrea Dona said: “This is the beginning of a new chapter for the mobile industry. Our team has been working tirelessly to take Open RAN technology from a theory in our lab to our customers in the real world – it’s remarkable how much has been achieved in such a short period of time.

“Open RAN as a concept is only five years old, and we’re already fundamentally changing how we deploy connectivity infrastructure. This is a watershed moment in the telecoms industry, and a catalyst for change and evolution.”

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