Vodafone opens test lab for OpenRAN mobile equipment

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Vodafone is opening a ‘state of the art’ test and integration lab for OpenRAN at its headquarters in Newbury, hoping the facility will accelerate the development and commercialisation of the technology.

Like other major telcos, Vodafone is looking beyond the provision of mere connectivity to businesses and increasingly views itself as a technology company capable of delivering a range of services to customers.

The addition of software-defined networking (SDN) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) across its infrastructure have been key elements of this digitisation process, and specialist OpenRAN technologies are seen as a way of accelerating these efforts.

Vodafone OpenRAN

The Radio Access Network (RAN) market has traditionally been dominated by a few major players who offer highly integrated cell sites comprising radio, hardware, and software. This approach has made it difficult for operators to mix and match innovations and has proved to be a significant barrier to entry for smaller vendors.

OpenRAN is a vendor-neutral approach with standardised designs that allow a variety of firms to supply hardware and software. Operators benefit from increased innovation from a wider range of suppliers, reduced costs and greater flexibility because the threat of vendor lock-in is reduced.

Vodafone also believes OpenRAN can make networks more sustainable because it will be possible to optimise specific parts of the RAN supply chain to reduce energy consumption.

It has already staged trials in several European countries and switched on the UK’s first live OpenRAN site in Wales last year with a view to deploying the technology at 2,500 locations. However, to make this happen, it requires a mature OpenRAN ecosystem with commercial products to choose from.

The Test and Integration Lab will employ 30 engineers who will work with vendors to ensure their products comply with Vodafone and the wider industry’s OpenRAN specifications. Work will begin at the innovation and development stages, through to commercial deployments and ongoing lifecycle management.

The company says the lab is further evidence of its commitment to OpenRAN and demonstrates its ambition to be a leader in what is still a nascent market

“The OpenRAN ecosystem is still in its infancy, and we want to spur its development,” said Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK.

“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. This is why we are announcing this investment in a new R&D lab, as well as committing to 2,500 OpenRAN sites in the UK countryside. OpenRAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition, and carbon savings. But, we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem.”

The UK government will be taking a keen interest in the development given it thinks OpenRAN can help mitigate any negative impacts caused by the decision to exclude Huawei from the rollout of 5G.

Analysts believe the market for Open RAN technologies will reach $5 billion within five years, and it’s not just new players getting involved. Nokia and Ericsson have both joined the O-RAN Alliance, one of several open RAN organisations, which has a 170-strong membership of operators, vendors and research institutions. In 2020, the O-RAN Alliance agreed a partnership with mobile industry body, the GSMA.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.