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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Vodafone: OpenRAN 5G network could be deployed by 2025

In the wake of the UK’s decision to ban Huawei from the 5G network, Vodafone says it will likely rely on a mixture of Ericsson and Nokia technology instead, combined with more experimental OpenRAN infrastructure.

Scott Petty, chief technology officer at Vodafone UK, said the firm is supportive of the 2027 deadline to strip Huawei equipment from the 5G network because it provides time to devote resources to developing an OpenRAN ecosystem.

Speaking at a defence committee parliamentary session on Tuesday (28 July), Petty said: “We are trialling [OpenRAN] in the UK. We believe by 2023, we may be able to deploy some scale in the rural parts of our network, but it will take until 2025 to be able to deploy at real scale in our denser urban and suburban areas.”

OpenRAN is an open source model for telecoms infrastructure which, if successful, would allow mobile networks to source hardware and software from a number of different vendors, as opposed to being locked into lengthy contracts for proprietary technology.

Petty sees OpenRAN as a useful way to diversify Vodafone’s supply chain, saying the company believes “if we can create that scale opportunity, those software developers will develop the specific features we need in the UK to allow us to deploy at scale to win that commercial opportunity”.

However, he said that at the moment, Ericsson and Nokia are the two primary scale vendors, “and if accelerated swaps are required, realistically, they’re the only two available vendors that an operator could choose to deploy at scale in our market”. He said Samsung has a significant role to play in OpenRAN, but currently lacks the capabilities to deploy at scale.

However, Petty noted the greater riskiness of opting for OpenRAN. “The technology itself is very new and hasn’t really been trialled at scale for everything – across 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G,” he said. “The places in the world where it has been deployed, it has just been for a single mobile technology – 4G or 5G only.

“We need to learn how to operate those tools and technologies, and make sure they’re secure, fully validated, and tested for all of the different vendors that we’re using in that ecosystem.”

The Financial Times reported that the current hubris around OpenRAN could prove unfounded, noting that an alliance called the OpenRAN Policy Coalition, comprising US and Japanese technology companies, lobbied British MPs ahead of the government’s Huawei decision.

Howard Watson, chief technology and information officer at BT Group said that given his company’s greater reliance on Huawei equipment than Vodafone, the company would likely be more reliant on Ericsson and Nokia than this emergent technology standard.

Watson said that two thirds of BT’s 4G radio access network is provided by Huawei, as well as its core, which is currently being removed.

Petty said that Huawei represents roughly one third of Vodafone’s radio access network, with Ericsson making up the remainder. Vodafone’s core technologies are made up of a mixture of vendors, including Ericsson, Nokia, Cisco and others.

Both companies are obligated to reduce their reliance on Huawei to 35 per cent by January 28, 2023. Both expressed confidence that they would be able to remove Huawei equipment from the network by 2027.

However because they use “non-standalone” 5G technology which is “inextricably linked” to the underlying 4G network, Huawei 4G technology will also have to be ripped out in order to meet the requirement.

This represents a long and arduous process. “In order to meet the 35 per cent restriction, I need to visit 4,000 sites between now and then that that I wouldn’t otherwise be going to,” Watson said. Meanwhile, Vodafone has 18,000 base stations around the country – a third of which now need to be swapped out.

“Swapping an entire site is much more complex in that it requires totally new planning, all of the site to be turned off, all of the old equipment to be taken away and removed, new equipment to be deployed, tested and integrated into the network,” said Petty. “Instead of a site being down for one or two days [to upgrade to 5G], it will be down for two to three weeks […]”

Asked about whether the firms would require more government investment to accommodate the new deadline, Watson said that BT still required an investment of £500 million that it had asked for when an initial 35 per cent cap on Huawei equipment was introduced back in January.

In Vodafone’s case, Petty said the company had “done calculations on the cost impacts” but “those are commercially sensitive data, which I would be happy to share with you in writing but not in a public forum”.

He said: “The mobile industry in the UK is one of the least profitable of mobile industries across the developed world and our return on capital employed is reasonably poor. There are many things that government can do to help us mitigate those costs. Including spectrum costs and regulation fees, we pay for the cost of running our network. We’re actively engaged with discussions with the government to balance those costs to ensure that we can stay on track with our 5G deployment.”

Watson said R&D funding in the telecoms industry in the UK was vitally needed, but would probably be a “decades long endeavour”.