October 9, 2023
Vodafone is pushing harder on Open RAN, announcing a pilot project in Italy alongside Nokia, a move it claims will be beneficial for Europe as a whole.
Vodafone is in the vanguard of Open RAN rollout in Europe, focusing in particular on its home market, the UK. The deal with Nokia will see it bring the technology to Italy for the first time.
Just to be clear, Vodafone notes that it and Nokia plan to run a commercial 5G Open RAN pilot in Italy for the first time, but there have been other Open RAN endeavours in the market previously; incumbent TIM has dipped a toe in the market, for example, with field tests at a handful of sites.
Vodafone’s planned pilot will take place at a cluster of sites in Northern Italy, it said, without being more specific at this stage. The pilot will use Nokia containerised baseband software running on the Red Hat OpenShift platform, hosted on Dell PowerEdge XR8000 servers. The Dell servers will support a Smart Network Interface Card (NIC) for Layer 1 processing developed by Nokia in cooperation with Marvell, Vodafone added.
It dutifully included canned comments from the aforementioned vendors, mainly bigging up the benefits of Open RAN and their individual roles in it.
There are many advantages of Open RAN in areas such as flexibility, easier maintenance, diversity in the ecosystem, potentially costs, and so on. These are well documented and have been debated at length. But all that aside, Vodafone is pretty clear on the overarching goal of this Italian pilot project: in its own words, “to prove that Nokia’s Open RAN solution achieves functionality and performance parity compared to its purpose-built RAN.”
You could argue that that is ultimately the tipping point for the technology. Operators need to be sure they are not taking a backwards step when it comes to performance.
Vodafone itself touched on its – and Nokia’s – vision of developing an automated and programmable network that can respond quickly to customer needs, referring in particular to the demand from both consumer and enterprise customers for responsive 5G services built on AI and extended reality. That demand is not really proven as yet, but telcos need it to be there in order to be able to monetise 5G beyond simply offering faster mobile services. And of course they need to build the network capabilities first before offering those new, revenue-generating services to customers.
In the meantime, operators are keen to squeeze some decent publicity out of these kinds of announcements, and in this case Vodafone has plumped for the European angle.
“Today’s announcement reinforces Vodafone’s commitment to supporting the EU digital economy with the deployment of customer-focussed Open RAN networks. Through greater collaboration, Vodafone and Nokia will also foster a new developer ecosystem in our home markets by providing a live software-based open network on which to launch innovative products and services for our customers,” said Alberto Ripepi, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone.
That comment is clearly designed to pick up on ongoing efforts in Brussels to increase digital sovereignty in the EU. The telco takes the message a step further, insisting that its work with Nokia will encourage competition and innovation in Europe – helping out independent software makers and start-ups – and will therefore boost the continent’s ability to compete on the global stage, as well increasing its digital autonomy thanks to a more resilient supply chain.
Aside from providing Vodafone with the opportunity to suck up to the EU, this latest Open RAN pilot does of course further the telco’s own ambitions across the continent, or in the markets it is committed to remaining in, at least. It reminds us that it aims to have 30% of its masts in Europe based on Open RAN by 2030, and that it is already working on a fairly broad Open RAN rollout in the UK, having recently announced plans to deploy 2,500 sites in Wales and the South West.
The Italian pilot will only add to its Open RAN credentials.
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