Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their thinking with our audience. In this piece James Grayling, OpenRAN Integration Lead, Vodafone, reflects on the significance of a recent Vodafone announcement.

Guest author

February 21, 2024

4 Min Read

Despite being one of the most promising technology developments of recent decades, OpenRAN is still under the microscope of industry opinion. However, we’ve got proof it works just as promised.

Just before Christmas, we undertook a project to replace Massive MIMO components on one of our OpenRAN sites in Devon. This was an existing OpenRAN site, serving both consumer and enterprise customers in the area.

If the nirvana of OpenRAN is to improve vendor diversity and offer greater flexibility on how we as mobile operators build networks, then this project proves the promise is a reality.

Bringing NEC into the OpenRAN equation

NEC has been one of our partners since we announced our headline OpenRAN project to replace legacy technology on 2500 sites across Wales and South West England. We have been working with the NEC team to tweak its Massive MIMO technology, and now it is in a position where it is commercially viable to be installed in our network.

The critically important point here is focused on how we installed the technology.

The site in question was a pre-existing OpenRAN deployment, making use of another vendors Massive MIMO technology temporarily. We have now taken out the temporary piece of equipment and replaced it with the NEC equivalent. The site is now running, with the NEC Massive MIMO component complementing Samsung radios, and is powered by Samsung management software.

Then you have to consider the rest of the site. We have Dell Technologies servers, powered by Intel chips, and a Wind River containers-as-a-service cloud environment.

If you are after diversity, this is a brilliant example of how OpenRAN can support corporate and resiliency objectives.

Flexibility and adaptability of OpenRAN

One of the discussion points surrounding OpenRAN in recent years has been how realistic it is to manage OpenRAN true to the promise.

Can you interchange and integrate different vendors in a seamless manner within impacting performance of the site? Sceptics might suggest you are simply replacing one static deployment for another which is under the guise of another name, but we have proved that wrong.

By swapping one component for another on an existing site without any downtime (aside from the time it takes to do the work itself), we have proven the interchangeability promise.

This is not to say that Vodafone will be interchanging parts of the network on a regular basis. It is after all an incredibly time-consuming activity to validate the performance of the technology and work with the partners to ensure it works seamlessly with other components. But what it does off is more freedom to pick a path which best suits Vodafone as the technology landscape evolves over the coming years and decades.

Building the foundation for innovation

The interchangeability of OpenRAN components is certainly a significant benefit for Vodafone, but let’s not forget this is only one part of the wider interoperability picture.

By proving we can bring in additional vendors on an existing OpenRAN stack without impacting performance, we are also opening the door to innovation in an almost unprecedented way.

OpenRAN creates opportunities to work with specialist and niche providers. In previous years, we have had to focus on the services, features and upgrades that are supplied by the turnkey vendor for each mobile site, which has its limitations. What we are now doing is creating the opportunity to explore the unknown.

Let’s imagine a software engineer working for a company we have never crossed paths with before develops a new way of utilising spectrum more efficiently. As long as this code is compliant to the OpenRAN specifications, we can integrate the software.

OpenRAN is a way of creating an environment to experiment and innovate at a pace we have not been capable of before. Adopting this way of working is transformational in so many ways. Many choose to focus on cost saving and improving vendor diversity, but for Vodafone, we have our eyes cast far beyond what we can do today, and OpenRAN gives that vision the opportunity to be real.

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James is the Product Integration and Performance Lead for Vodafone OpenRan, with more than over 20 years experience in Radio products and innovation. Leading lab development for future RAN products and now leading lab evolution for ORAN technologies and architectures

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