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Vodafone bets big on OpenRAN as it replaces its Huawei estate in rural Wales and South West England

'The technology works. There's still a lot of development that needs to happen, but it does work'

UK network provider Vodafone is proposing to deploy OpenRAN hardware across 2,600 sites in rural Wales and the South West of England - the LTE masts will replace the carrier's existing Huawei estate.

Deployment is expected to start in 2022, said Voda, with the rollout concluding in 2027, ahead of the government's rip-and-replace deadline to remove equipment manufactured by so-called high-risk vendors.

The carrier said it has already began the procurement process, but declined to name any vendors in the running, adding that it expects to have selected current candidates within "a couple of months."

The RAN (Radio Access Network) is the element in a mobile system that passes data between the core network and other connected devices – like phones, tablets, and routers. The OpenRAN movement aims to replace RAN kit made by the likes of Nokia and Ericsson with vendor-agnostic alternatives built around standardised, often off-the-shelf components.

When asked about the decision to select Wales and South West England, a Vodafone representative said the current OpenRAN ecosystem is best geared to rural deployments, rather than traffic-heavy urban systems.

"Right now, we are focusing on the rural deployments because that's where the ecosystem has developed," the spokesperson told us.

"As the ecosystem develops, and as OpenRAN develops, [we] want to have OpenRAN as a very realistic alternative to traditional RAN [equipment] in urban markets."

Vodafone said the decision to select OpenRAN – which is somewhat of an unknown quantity – over tried-and-tested kit from established vendors was part of an effort to improve vendor diversity.

"The technology works. There's still a lot of development that needs to happen, but it does work," the spokesperson added.

"Realistically, this is an opportunity to grow diversity. The issue today is there aren't enough vendors in the RAN ecosystem. We're making a commitment to encourage the ecosystem and encourage others in the industry to follow us, and actually drive vendor diversity."

The relatively limited amount of competition in the RAN market has been described as a "global market failure" by Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden, and a "failure of capitalism" and free markets by Canadian academic Amy Karam. This, they said, has resulted in carriers becoming dependent on too few providers.

In September, the UK government announced the launch of a new task force that would attempt to foster diversity in the mobile infrastructure market. The team, which includes Vodafone CTO Scott Petty, will attempt to entice new vendors to the market, and examine ways in which it can bolster interest in open standards like OpenRAN. ®

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