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Vodafone launches OpenRAN lab

  • May 8, 2021

NEWBURY, England — Vodafone is supporting the OpenRAN ecosystem in the telecommunications industry by opening an OpenRAN lab at its Newbury campus.

The mobile carrier serving Europe, Africa and parts of Asia launched its OpenRAN Test and Validation Lab last month. It will initially employ 30 engineers, a number that could grow with more partners.

The lab is the first dedicated research and development facility for OpenRAN in the U.K., according to the company. It will "boost" the U.K.'s role in the development of OpenRAN.

OpenRAN technology creates flexibility for mobile carriers, as it separates hardware from software. Through OpenRAN, many companies could provide components for a mobile site — rather than one vendor.

The technology is "widely accepted as a disruptor" and is set to "revolutionize" the telecommunications industry, according to Vodafone.

“The OpenRAN ecosystem is still in its infancy, and we want to spur its development," said Andrea Donà, chief network officer, Vodafone U.K.

“We want to avoid a Catch-22 situation, where operators wait to buy perfect products, but the OpenRAN vendors need investment to perfect their products."

In October, Vodafone also committed to develop 2,500 mobile sites with OpenRAN technology, calling it a "commercial incentive" to the OpenRAN ecosystem. 

Vodafone is "paving the way" in building mobile networks with a variety of equipment suppliers and "creating new jobs and opportunities" for other companies, according to the U.K.'s Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman.

A worker brings hardware to work on wireless antennas atop a building. Courtesy Adobe.

A worker brings hardware to work on wireless antennas atop a building. Courtesy Adobe.

OpenRAN architecture

Mobile carriers are often tied to small number of vendors due to most radio access network (RAN) technology being built on proprietary designs.

OpenRAN is set up to standardize the development of both hardware and software components to ensure the elements are interoperable.

Interoperability would allow telecom companies to source equipment from a wider variety of suppliers.

OpenRAN benefits

OpenRAN technology could benefit the telecom industry in several ways, such as cost-effectiveness, resilience and security of network deployment.

"But we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem,” Vodafone's Donà said.

Vendor diversity

Many vendors can't enter a market or work with certain mobile carriers, because they're not a technical match or have to focus on complete end-to-end network solutions. 

Carrier opportunities for vendors could open up, and vendors could specialize more in specific network areas rather than many areas.

Innovation

Both mobile carriers and vendors could dedicate more investment in network specializations that drive innovation.

Increased competition would also act as a catalyst for innovation.

Improved software 

Vendor-agnostic hardware components wouldn't necessarily need to be replaced as part of upgrades to management and automation software.

Software upgrades could be performed more frequently as well as with greater time and cost efficiencies.

The shift could allow carriers to dedicate more resources and investment to software-defined operations and software development.

Environmental impact

Carriers could begin to better optimize pieces of the supply chain to reduce its environmental impact as well as network carbon footprints.

O-RAN Alliance

Across the mobile industry, the Bonn, Germany-based O-RAN Alliance is also working to advance OpenRAN technology.

The group is made up of over 270 mobile operators, vendors and research and academic institutions in the RAN industry. 

With RAN being an essential part of any mobile network, the O-RAN Alliance's mission is to "re-shape the industry towards more intelligent, open, virtualized and fully interoperable mobile networks," according to its website.

"Our industry is approaching an inflection point, where increasing infrastructure virtualization will combine with embedded intelligence to deliver more agile services and advanced capabilities to our customers,” said Andre Fuetsch, CTO and president, AT&T Labs.

"The O-RAN Alliance is at the forefront of defining the next-generation RAN architecture for this transformation."

The alliance says that new O-RAN standards will enable "a more competitive and vibrant" RAN supplier ecosystem as well as faster innovation and an improved user experience.

To help its members, O-RAN publishes new RAN specifications, releases open software for RAN and supports the integration and testing of their implementations.

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