Vodafone inks Open RAN landmark in Italy and makes first Open RAN call in Romania

Operator and leading coms tech provider unveil technology partnership in key territory designed to strengthen Europe’s standing in software-based networks and achieve functionality and performance parity that compares to its purpose-built solutions

In what is being described as a way to encourage competition and innovation, boosting Europe’s competitiveness and giving it greater digital autonomy underpinned by a more resilient supply chain, Vodafone has announced a strengthening of its existing partnership with Nokia to run a commercial 5G open radio access network (RAN) pilot in Italy for the first time, and has conducted a pilot with Orange for the first real-life experience of 4G calls over a cluster of shared commercial network sites in a rural area in Romania, based on Open RAN technology

Nokia and Vodafone believe that by bringing together their respective portfolios they can provide a platform for more independent software providers, startups and local companies to enter the fray using open application programming interfaces (APIs). The collaboration’s goal is to prove that Nokia’s Open RAN solution achieves functionality and performance parity compared with its purpose-built RAN. The deployment will include the validation of Open RAN-compliant Open Fronthaul interfaces, which include antennas and the baseband unit.

Covering a cluster of sites in northern Italy, the pilot involves Nokia containerised baseband software running on the Kubernetes-powered Red Hat OpenShift hybrid cloud application platform hosted on Dell PowerEdge XR8000 servers. Designed for Open RAN and mobile edge computing workloads, the servers will support a smart network interface card (NIC) for Layer 1 processing developed by Nokia in cooperation with Marvell.

The deployment is the first of its kind in Italy, and Vodafone and Nokia are now focusing on building open and interoperable networks to meet enterprise and consumer demand for highly responsive 5G services built on AI and extended reality. It is also the latest step in Vodafone’s strategy to widely deploy Open RAN across Europe, with the aim of having 30% of its masts based on the technology by 2030. It builds on Vodafone’s recent announcement to deploy 2,500 Open RAN sites in the UK, the first large-scale deployment in Europe.

“[This] announcement reinforces Vodafone’s commitment to supporting the EU digital economy with the deployment of customer-focused Open RAN networks,” said Vodafone chief network officer Alberto Ripepi. “Through greater collaboration, Vodafone and Nokia will also foster a new developer ecosystem in our home markets by providing a live software-based open network on which to launch innovative products and services for our customers.”

Shlomi Moscovici, vice-president of telco, media and entertainment, EMEA, at Red Hat, added: “Open RAN’s significance lies not only in providing an efficient and flexible way to deploy applications and derive value at the edge, but also in helping boost collaboration and innovation in the ecosystem. Vodafone’s 5G Open RAN pilot is a leading example of collaboration in action, and we are pleased to bring Red Hat OpenShift as an interoperable, consistent and scalable foundation for Open RAN.”

Further east across Europe, Vodafone said working with fellow operator Orange it has successfully conducted a pilot with the first real-life experience of Open RAN-based 4G calls over a cluster of shared commercial network sites in a rural area near Bucharest in Romania.

The move – described by the firms as a representing a technological milestone – follows the two companies’ announcement in February 2023 that they will build an Open RAN infrastructure with RAN sharing in rural parts of Europe where they both have mobile networks. RAN sharing offers the potential for each operator to operate its own virtualised RAN software on a common cloud infrastructure in future, enhancing operator autonomy and differentiation while sharing network costs.

Within the pilot with commercial traffic, Vodafone and Orange worked together with key supplier partners, individually selected, to demonstrate the benefits of a virtualised radio access network based on Open RAN standardised interfaces, including the ability to make remote software changes.

Drawing on the experience gained from Vodafone UK’s Open RAN deployment and successful integration tests in Orange’s Open RAN laboratory in France, the companies have used the same stack on their shared sites. This includes a Samsung commercial virtualised RAN solution, Wind River abstraction layer on top of hardware to deploy and scale the RAN software, and again, Dell PowerEdge servers.

Following the successful completion of 4G calls over shared Open RAN sites in a rural location, Vodafone and Orange will now look to introduce 2G, which has already been tested successfully in lab, and then 5G. This is said to mark the first time 2G radio software has been fully integrated within a virtualised Open RAN environment in Europe, simplifying its deployment while avoiding the need for more operationally complex overlay solutions.

“This first pilot deployment of Open RAN within Orange is an important milestone to demonstrate Open RAN is now mature for roll-out in brownfield networks,” stated Orange chief technology and innovation officer Bruno Zerbib. “It opens the door for wider-scale deployments across the group, and paves the way towards fully automated and intelligent networks.” 

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