Vodafone names vendors tapped for Britain's first wide-scale OpenRAN build: NEC, Dell, and Samsung

The big get Huawei: telco starts to rip and replace Chinese network maker's kit


Vodafone has revealed the first vendors included in its OpenRAN rollout as the telco starts to rip and replace its network infrastructure across Wales and the South East of England.

The company first declared an intent to embrace OpenRAN last October, with the aim of replacing proprietary Huawei-made towers with alternatives centred around open standards. Dell, NEC, Samsung, Wind River, Capgemini Engineering, and Keysight Technologies were all selected to provide equipment, software, and integration services.

Vodafone selected generic Dell EMC PowerEdge iron to provide computational muscle, with the RAN software running within a virtualized container system provided by Wind River.

OpenRAN solutions typically run in virtualised environments as they allow for easier remote maintenance, as well as horizontal scalability. This also means the telco can remotely provision and deploy new software services without having to send an engineer to the site.

For testing and validation, Vodafone selected Keysight Technologies, with Capgemini Engineering picked to ensure the interoperability of each component.

Vodafone also said it intends to use the Evenstar radio units it has developed jointly with Facebook.

First announced in December, Evenstar follows the OpenRAN playbook closely, with each of the core components of the RAN stack decoupled from each other, and interacting through an open, standards-based system.

The project was conceived to increase the level of diversity in the telecoms supply chain. Each component is provided as a white box reference design, which other manufacturers can adopt and adapt for their own purposes, similar to the reference design phones made by chipset manufacturers.

Additional radios will come from Samsung, which will additionally provide Massive MIMO units alongside Japanese infrastructure provider NEC.

Although Samsung has long been a provider of telecommunications equipment, it has struggled to crack Europe, where market share has been split between Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei for the past decade. Its biggest successes have been in Samsung's home territory of South Korea, as well as the United States and Japan.

NEC, meanwhile, has a slightly longer track record when it comes to the European RAN market. Last year, it was selected by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to collaborate on a project designed to create a shared, scalable OpenRAN platform dubbed NeutrORAN.

CCS Insight analyst Richard Webb described today's news as a "validation" of Samsung's 5G portfolio.

"The contract win shows that Samsung is becoming a credible 5G RAN equipment provider," he said. "Although Ericsson and Nokia have established market leadership in Europe, there is room for alternatives and now that Huawei's position has been undermined by trade restrictions, it leaves the door open to Samsung to stake a claim for a growing share of the market.

"It still has a long way to go to catch Ericsson and Nokia, though, but Samsung has a well-rounded 5G RAN portfolio across mobile broadband, fixed wireless access and private 5G networks, so it should be seen as a genuine contender."

What Huawei to go

The recent explosion of interest in OpenRAN has followed the turmoil with Huawei, which had in the past decade plus had made great inroads into the UK and European telecommunications supply chain. Following the imposition of US sanctions, and consequently its inability to source components and crucial semiconductors, DCMS was forced to label the company as a security risk, and prohibited UK networks from using its equipment.

In the months and weeks that followed, the government began investigating how the telecommunications supply chain largely became centred around the big three providers: Nokia, Huawei, and Ericsson.

One expert testimony decried the situation as a "failure of capitalism" and, more specifically, the failure of western governments to prevent their homegrown providers from falling into insolvency (in the case of Nortel) or being absorbed by larger entities (as happened to Marconi).

DCMS has subsequently emphasised OpenRAN as a logical solution to this supply-chain homogeneity. The combination of open standards and interoperability have made it easier for new entrants into the marketplace. They don't need to develop the whole RAN – they can just make one component and have it work with other equipment selected by the carrier.

"Flexibility stands as one of the principle benefits of OpenRAN," Paolo Pescatore, analyst at PP Foresight, told The Register. "It allows telcos to mix and match network vendors which helps avoid vendor lock-ins and provides cost savings. Telcos are striving to be more efficient given that margins are being squeezed and the financial challenges that all are facing."

But questions remain as to whether it can be a viable alternative to conventional network equipment. In the case of Vodafone, this uncertainty has been illustrated by its decision to deploy the first OpenRAN masts in less populous regions.

"It is early days. OpenRAN is unproven and the road ahead is a long – and most likely bumpy – one as this form of integration is no easy feat," Pescatore said.

"There are numerous unanswered questions. Ultimately, can this new approach be scalable, guarantee robust performance, be interoperable with previous generations, and work in a multi-vendor end-to-end environment? These are all areas that need to be thoroughly tested." ®

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