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Vodafone tests waters with 5G Raspberry Pi base station

Prototype private network uses single board computer with software-defined radio circuit hardware

Vodafone will lift the covers off a prototype 5G base station built on a Raspberry Pi at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in a bid to showcase how small businesses could run their own private 5G network.

The telecoms biz says it wants to make 5G-based mobile private networks more accessible to the 22 million small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Europe, and reckons it could even be a viable broadband technology for private households.

As Reg readers know, a private 5G network is a dedicated mobile network operated by a customer for their own purposes, separate from the public 5G networks. These have the advantage of security and ultra-low latency, but have so far been offered chiefly to large enterprises as a campus-wide alternative to Wi-Fi because setting up such a network is not trivial.

Private 5G products for enterprises were announced last year by companies including HPE, Cisco and of course, BT.

Vodafone's pitch is that it is looking at ways to democratize private networks and extend their benefits to small biz owners by lowering the entry cost and reducing the resources needed to get digital services.

The company's prototype is based on a Raspberry Pi 4 single board computer combined with a 5G-ccompatible software-defined radio (SDR) circuit board developed by Lime Microsystems. This device can be used as part of a dedicated private network, or connected to Vodafone’s public network like any other base station, the company said.

The result is a box the size of a Wi-Fi access point, which Vodafone claims could offer customers a complete 5G network for the price of a wireless router.

“We looked at what Raspberry Pi did for computing, in terms of making it more accessible to people of all ages, and we wanted to do the same with 5G,” said Vodafone’s director of Network Architecture Santiago Tenorio.

This is somewhat similar in concept to existing femtocell devices, which network operators can fit in homes or offices where there is poor signal coverage. But such devices effectively form part of the larger mobile network, using a broadband connection for backhaul, for example.

Private 5G networks are operated and managed by the customer themselves, which brings issues such as radio spectrum access and provisioning devices like handsets onto the network.

Vodafone does not seem to have worked out these difficulties yet, and appears to be seeking third parties to help it make this scheme into reality.

“Whilst this is just a prototype, it has the potential to bring new cloud, AI and big data technologies within reach of many of the small businesses we support across Europe,” said Tenorio. “The next step is to take ideas like this to a place where they can be developed and eventually produced. Our door is open to interested vendors,” he added.

MWC in Barcelona starts this coming Monday, 27 February. ®

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