LIVE FROM TIP SUMMIT 2019, AMSTERDAM: Vodafone Group took a giant leap forward in its commitment to OpenRAN, outlining plans for a tender covering its entire European footprint barely a month after announcing its first trials of the technology in the region.

The move is a major boost for so-called “alternative” network vendors including Mavenir and Parallel Wireless, as the operator aims to expands its supplier options beyond traditional players.

An initiative forming part of the Telecom Infrastructure Project’s efforts to improve RAN efficiency, OpenRAN offers a software-centric approach based on commoditised hardware. The aim is to boost interoperability between equipment from multiple vendors, an approach deemed more cost-effective in terms of delivering rural connectivity than traditional approaches.

OpenRAN is compatible with 2G, 3G and 4G services.

Vodafone’s tender will cover more than 100,000 sites and 400 million people across 14 countries.

“Right now this is the biggest tender in this industry in the world,” Yago Tenorio, head of Network Strategy and Architecture at Vodafone (pictured) said. “It’s a really big opportunity for OpenRAN to scale. We are ready to swap out sites if we have to. Our ambition is to have modern, up-to-date, lower-cost kit in every site.”

A Vodafone representative told Mobile World Live all companies taking part in this tender process (including traditional vendors) “will also have to comply with ORAN specifications” as part of its move to expand its list of suppliers.

The operator initially outlined plans to commence OpenRAN trials in rural areas of the UK following trials in Turkey and a number of African countries. Today (13 November) Tenorio revealed the Republic of Ireland will also be involved in trials, with Mavenir and Parallel Wireless each being sole vendors in the pilots (UK and RoI, respectively).

OpenRAN is expected to support 5G in future, and Vodafone today revealed it had issued a request for information (RFI) covering tests for NR software. Seven vendors responded (Altiostar, Altran, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Phluido, Radisys and Samsung Networks), but none of its traditional vendors accepted the invitation.

Tenorio hailed Samsung Networks as the winner, claiming the South Korean vendor showed “spectacular results,” demonstrating the industry is “more ready [for 5G OpenRAN] than we thought.”

Beyond terrestrial networks
Meanwhile Vodafone and fellow OpenRAN supporter Telefonica are teaming up on a new project group within TIP to focus on “non-terrestrial connectivity solutions” using platforms including satellites, zeppelins, balloons and drones. Initial use cases for the group will focus on unconnected regions and emergency relief services, with lab trials in Q4 2020, pilots in Q2 2021 and commercial deployments from Q3 2022.

Announcing the initiative, Miguel Marin, technology director for AMAP, Vodafone, explained “macro and small cells won’t fully address the non-connected gap,” and a new approach offering “coverage from the sky” is required.