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OpenRAN Vodafone, the first commercial site – what is it about?

The last few days have brought information from the OpenRAN Vodafone world that I have been waiting.

Vodafone has launched the first commercial OpenRAN site in the 2400MHz band.

This is electrifying news, but like with any news, you have to understand what the author means and separate the facts from the myths.

I was very pleased with this information because I must admit that I am an ambassador of OpenRAN solutions.
Let’s check together what Vodafone has made public.
Should we fall into euphoria, is it time for OpenRAN, or is it still worth cooling down the emotions a bit?

An interview by Ray Le Maistre of telecomtv.com with Yago Tenorio, Network Architect Vodafone, will provide us with the answers.

What Vodafone has launched on Vodafone’s commercial OpenRAN network?

In November 2020, Vodafone announced the roll-out of 2,500 locations supporting Vodafone’s OpenRAN.

In June 2021, he announced which suppliers he chose for this project.

Why vendors and not a vendor as it used to be with classic RAN vendors?

By design, OpenRAN allows you to connect different vendors in different areas of network architecture.

OpenRAN versus single RAN - comparison

This is also what Vodafone did, choosing the best partners for your project.

By the way, the choice of Vodafone is a bit unclear for me, I mean Samsung, which does not have any OpenRAN credentials. This will certainly be explained by Vodafone in the coming months of operation.

On January 18, 2022, Vodafone electrified the market with the launch of its first base station near Bath in an urban area.

The clients included a business client, Water of Essex.

The first station provides OpenRAN Vodafone 5G services with a speed of over 100 Mbps DL, 40 Mbps UL, and a delay of 30 ms (Latency).

Bath location is connected to the Core network in London, in a straight line distance of approximately 170 km. It is the main cause of high latency.

4G, 3G, and 2G stations, which have been used for a long time in classic RAN technology, operate in the same building.

Mr. Yago informed that in the current version, OpenRAN commercially supports only 5G, which was a priority for the group.

The 4G solution is in the final testing phase.

The strategy of starting with only 5G is consistent with what I observed on the OpenRAN vendor market. Almost all providers focus on implementing 5G, leaving 4G for later or completely forgetting this scenario.

In my opinion, 4G should not be overlooked. Most terminals in the world support 4G, which will remain dominant for 2-3 years, and the next 5 years will be very significant in mobile Internet access.

An interesting fact is that Vodafone intends to turn off the 3G network, leaving the 2G network to implement 2G as Vodafone’s OpenRAN in the future. When asked what about 3G and VoLTE roaming?

Which providers did Vodafone choose?

Vodafone has selected several suppliers to work with.

SAMSUNG: Virtualized Radio Network (vRAN) solutions, as well as technical, product, and integration support as well as OpenRAN 4G and 5G antennas.

DELL: Dell open-source hardware servers

WIND RIVER: For OpenRAN CU / DU containerized workload management, automation, orchestration, and lifecycle management of network functions

CAP GEMINI and KEYSIGHT: Provided testing and integration services at Vodafone’s lab to ensure the interoperability of a multi-vendor ecosystem. Once the technologies and vendors are verified as OpenRAN compliant, hardware deployment becomes a much simpler task.

NEC: NEC’s OpenRAN 4G and 5G antennas will be deployed from mid-2022.

It is worth noting that in the difficult task of testing coordination and interoperability, Vodafone has put the support of CAP Gemini and Keysight.

Was the implementation of OpenRAN Vodafone smoothly?

Mr. Yago revealed that the 5G station is integrated with the rest of the network. Handovers are made to and from the station.

Integrating both networks (classic RAN and OpenRAN) was not, however, a trivial task.

For many months, Vodafone performed a lot of tests and verifications in its laboratories in Newbury and in the laboratories of suppliers.

Many months of testing is not positive information for smaller operators. Vodafone is a powerful company and can afford the effort and cost. You have to remember that changing any of the vendors from the test configuration requires work on the integration and testing from scratch.

It made me think.

Mr. Yago somehow conveyed that the issue of the criticality of the configuration of selected solutions is crucial. If a decision was made to change any of the solution providers during the project, it would require repeating a lot of tests and interoperability changes.

OpenRAN allows any combination of vendors, but in practice, there is no plug-and-play solutions. The choice of a partner at the beginning of the OpenRAN journey is very binding, despite the willingness of many eulogists of the universal solution.

In this case, how is it worth acting after the decision to enter OpenRAN?

I would focus on introducing two parallel tested suppliers from the very beginning. This solution may seem more expensive and require more effort, but it gives you a better chance of success.

What confirms the above thesis was emphasized by Yago.

Vodafone took on the task of integrating the systems, which was reportedly done in the World Premium Class.

It is obvious, at least for people interested in the OpenRAN issue, that training and preparing a team of engineers to implement, integrate and maintain systems based on virtual and containerized solutions is not a trivial matter. Also important is a clever team fluent in the DevOps regime, which is more the domain of IT experts than telecommunications.

Vodafone is constantly learning about integration and has given itself all of 2022 to improve it.

The integration challenge is also the issue of linking the Vodafone OpenRAN system with legacy system interfaces, which are backed by current suppliers who are reluctant to change.

Personally, he encountered resistance from classic vendors in one of the projects trying to connect RAN networks with OpenRAN networks, but more about it in the Braun Field OpenRAN article.

Mr. Yago mentioned one more problem that RAN vendors present as the biggest disadvantage of OpenRAN, which is performance.

Practical problems with the effectiveness of Samsung software with Intel processors.

For Samsung, this is probably one of the first such large projects, and in addition, let’s remember the unique constellation of Vodafone’s OpenRAN vendors selected by Vodafone.

Note also that Vodafone has launched stations on a single band, on a simple radio systems (we do not know if this is a MIMO solution).

I will not reveal a secret, but the efficiency of the system (HW and SW) drops drastically with the increase in the number of bands, radio paths, or more complicated radio techniques.

So let’s wait impatiently for what Vodafone will show at the end of 2022, but more about it later in the text.

What do you think about Vodafone legacy solutions?

Is Vodafone’s OpenRAN solution cheaper than classic solutions?

“Hit the table and the scissors will go off.”

Another myth that has arisen around OpenRAN is supposedly an opportunity to reduce CAPEX and OPEX costs.

Since 2020, Rakuten Mobile has been spreading the belief that OpenRAN solutions will be 20-30% cheaper than classic solutions, and their maintenance can be up to 40% cheaper.

Financial results of Rakuten Mobile, unfortunately, do not support this thesis.

My experience with OpenRAN tenders also, unfortunately, did not confirm this thesis, but even destroyed the image of the perspective on cheaper solutions than classic RAN.

Let’s see what Vodafone has to say about OpenRAN cost?

Vodafone has confirmed that there is no way to save money in the initial investment phase. On the contrary, the cost associated with the tests described and the integration and rebuilding of the organization of the technical department is great.

However, this does not change Vodafone’s belief that OpenRAN Vodafone will pay off in the long run.

And here it is worth summarizing the myth.

Not in the beginning, but in the long run, OpenRAN may be cheaper than Classic RAN.

Until then, however, a lot has to change.

Certainly, the emergence of new suppliers, an alternative to the classic RAN, gives a chance to reduce the cost of the solution.

In my opinion, this can happen, but it also requires the consolidation of much smaller, distributed OpenRAN vendors into commercial groups.

Only suppliers who will come with a ready-made integrated set, but still allow for the expansion of the supplier park (e.g. with other suppliers of RIC algorithms), can compete with classic suppliers.

I am full of admiration for Vodafone.

Vodafone together with T-MOBILE, ORANGE, and TELEFONICA have jointly signed a few letters of intent promising to fight for market support for OpenRAN providers.

Vodafone is pioneering in this team by sharing an important message.

Despite the premium costs it incurs, building an alternative market for flexible solutions is very important.

Mr. Yago has already informed the world today that the OpenRAN Vodafone energy consumption is comparable to the classic solutions of the new generation and much smaller than the solutions from one or even two decades ago.

What are Vodafone’s plans for OpenRAN Vodafone?

First of all, improving the efficiency of the system, working on simplifying the integration, catching up with or even surpassing the efficiency of OpenRAN Vodafone stations over classic stations.

It is also important to work on reducing the cost of CAPEX and OPEX.

The second is, Feedback loop. Experience from the implementation and maintenance of the first locations is to be transferred to the process of optimization and modernization of the solution.

Vodafone has presented a specific roadmap of works:

  • Build a cluster of multiple OpenRAN Vodafone stations (10 to 20) in an urban area (Fall 2022)
  • Implementation of a new, optimized version of the software and functionalities supporting also commercialized 4G OpenRAN Vodafone,
  • Massive MIMO (summer 2022)
  • Support for several bands simultaneously
  • Intel HW accelerator hardware support (physical layer)
  • Integration with the Core 5G SA (Stand Alone) network.

Vodafone intends to introduce OpenRAN solutions to Vodafone also in its other networks around the world. We haven’t got to know the details yet.

Is it high time to massively implement OpenRAN?

If everything is successful in the area of ​​cluster tests and the new functionalities meet the assumed KPIs, a massive roll-out across the country will begin in the first quarter of 2023.

Please note that OpenRAN solutions operating on a large scale in the world concerned the case of Green Field implementations, i.e. networks without an existing classic RAN network.

In the case of Vodafone, it is about building a network with great efforts to integrate with the existing network, which Mr. Yago emphasized very strongly in his speech.

There is one more real threat to the massive deployment of OpenRAN solutions.

Currently, the world is experiencing a crisis related to the shortage of components, mainly chips.

Each OpenRAN base station is one DU server and every few stations a CU (multiprocessor) servers.

Therefore, mass deployment requires thousands of servers and thousands of processors.

Suppliers have extended server delivery times from 2 months to many months. Sometimes I hear that delivery times for large quantities of components can be as long as 9 months.

The realities have changed.

To sum up, 2022 is not a year of full readiness for this type of commercial deployment.

Soon I will share with you my experiences and thoughts in the field of Greenfield and Brownfield OpenRAN implementations.

Will Vodafone adopt a RIC solution in the future?

RIC (RAN Intelligence Controller) is, in my opinion, the most important part of the OpenRAN network.

The implementation of algorithms extending or improving the operation of radio networks and the impact of services on the radio network is the future of technology.

Vodafone is in no doubt that RIC (xApps and rApps) is the future of Vodafone’s OpenRAN solutions.
The time to work and implement this amazing technology will be in 2023.

I’m very happy about this.

What do I like about Vodafone’s strategy?

Mr. Yago boldly and openly said at what stage is their implementation.

There was no coloring or pretending that “the star is already shining brightly today”.

Such a voice is very necessary, it is only necessary to colorize the propaganda of success.

You need to openly pay attention to:

  • Huge efforts of hundreds of vendors around the world struggling to simplify OpenRAN solutions
  • Huge resistance from classic suppliers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, ZTE in the pursuit of cooperation with OpenRAN suppliers
  • A need to engage additional efforts and resources in the development of RIC algorithms
  • The need to change the operators’ approach to building teams of the future responsible for RAN radio networks
  • Also the necessity to build an alternative market to traditional suppliers – costs and safety.

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