Global operator giant Vodafone outlined plans to bring OpenRAN technology to Europe for the first time, in a move which could threaten the dominance of traditional network suppliers Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.

Following trials in Turkey and South Africa, the operator is launching an unspecified number of trials of the technology in rural areas of the UK.

“We have already allotted the budget and have scoped out the trial, but have not selected the final sites”, a representative told Mobile World Live, adding it is looking at more than 100 potential locations.

OpenRAN is compatible with 2G, 3G and 4G services, with 5G expected in the future. Vodafone claimed the UK is the first “developed” market using OpenRAN technology, stating it may extend it to more of its European markets.

The OpenRAN initiative sits within the Telecom Infra Project’s (TIP) work to improve RAN efficiency, with a software-centric approach using commoditised hardware. The aim is to boost interoperability between equipment from multiple vendors, an approach deemed to be more cost-effective in terms of delivering rural connectivity than traditional approaches.

Intel is a major backer of the initiative.

Taking on the big boys
Vodafone didn’t hold back on its intentions to use the trial to help expand its supplier base. CEO Nick Read said the operator was “pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe, as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem”.

The operator noted “the global supply of telecom network equipment has become concentrated in a small handful of companies over the past few years. More choice of suppliers will safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers, increase flexibility and innovation and, crucially, can help address some of the cost challenges that are holding back the delivery of internet services to rural communities and remote places across the world”.

Vodafone added the move will improve “supply chain resilience”, introducing “a wave of new 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G technology vendors, in addition to the existing market leaders”.

Those new vendors include US-headquartered Mavenir and Parallel Wireless. Vodafone’s existing 4G and 5G network suppliers are Ericsson and Huawei.

Cost savings
Parallel Wireless claims its OpenRAN kit can reduce OPEX by up to a third and cites analyst projections that deployment costs of a 5G macro cell will fall by 50 per cent from now until 2022 if it is built around an open architecture, compared with an expected 30 per cent reduction using traditional approaches.

OpenRAN made headlines in October 2018 at the TIP Summit, when both Vodafone and Telefonica hailed it as the future of RAN equipment. Following two initial pilots in 2017 in India, which convinced Vodafone the new technology could match incumbent performance, the operator worked with Parallel Wireless on lab trials in South Africa and outdoor trials in Turkey, where it deployed the technology to deliver 2G and 4G services across 25 sites to customers in urban and rural areas.

Vodafone plans further tests in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, offering voice calls and mobile data.

The operator also announced UK-based Lime Microsystems will offer small cell technology to boost coverage in cities. The vendor was one of two selected by Vodafone and Telefonica in 2018 to provide an end-to-end platform based on CrowdCell, a technology designed to boost indoor 4G coverage.

CrowdCell has already been used in Spain and Turkey.