A number of major firms are participating in Vodafone's project to deliver the first commercial deployment of Open Radio Access Network (RAN) in Europe.
Dell, Samsung, NEC, Wind River, Capgemini and Keysight will contribute their technologies and expertise to Vodafone's efforts to build on the Open RAN lab in Newbury, in England, as well as digital skills hubs in Malaga and Dresden in Spain and Germany.
Open RAN is a networking concept that allows mobile network operators to use equipment from multiple vendors to form key components of a mobile network. Current RAN technology takes the form of a hardware and software integrated platform.
The alternative, spearheaded by the O-RAN-ALLIANCE, allows for disaggregation between hardware and software with open interfaces and virtualisation, alongside software that controls and updates networks through the cloud.
Benefits of the technology include diversifying the supply chain, raising flexibility, as well as adding new capabilities and services to networks. Operators, for example, could easily introduce AI functionality to optimise the network for specific use cases, such as large crowds at a football match.
"Open RAN provides huge advantages for customers," said Vodafone CTO, Johan Wibergh. "Our network will become highly programmable and automated meaning we can release new features simultaneously across multiple sites, add or direct capacity more quickly, resolve outages instantly and provide businesses with on-demand connectivity.
"Open RAN is also reinvigorating our industry. It will boost the digital economy by stimulating greater tech innovation from a wider pool of vendors, bringing much-needed diversity to the supply chain."
Allowing for a mix and match of hardware and equipment would also allow governments to move away from a reliance on technology provided by Huawei, over security concerns, as well as Ericsson and Nokia. Encouraging smaller companies to enter the market would, in theory, enhance competition.
For this reason, the project is also backed by the European Commission, with the EU hoping that developments in Open RAN will bring more European companies into the emerging market. Vodafone and other major EU telecoms firms hope these networks architectures will help to build a broader ecosystem.
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The initial focus will be on the 2,500 sites in the UK that Vodafone committed to Open RAN in October 2020. Described as one of the largest deployments in the world, it'll be built jointly with Dell, NEC, Samsung and Wind River.
Vodafone also projects to use new radio equipment defined under the Evenstar programme, which the firm contributes to. Capegemini and Keysight will provide support to ensure there's interoperability between all the components that make up the infrastructure.
From this year, the six vendors will work together to extend 4G and 5G coverage to more rural places across the South West of England and most of Wales, shifting to urban areas at a later stage of the programme.
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Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.