Vodafone OpenRAN Newbury

Vodafone UK to open new OpenRAN Lab in Newbury

New research and testing lab bolsters the UK’s leading position in developing this industry-changing technology

Vodafone UK is to open a new OpenRAN Test and Validation Lab on its Newbury campus to support the developing OpenRAN ecosystem for the telecommunications industry. The lab will be the first dedicated research and development facility for OpenRAN in the UK and will be a boost for the role that the UK plays in the development of this important new technology.

OpenRAN (Open Radio Access Network.) technology separates hardware from software meaning more flexibility for mobile operators. The approach will see many companies providing the components that make up a mobile network site, where previously one vendor would have delivered the whole site.

The technology is widely accepted as a disruptor for the telecoms industry, and Vodafone is one of the industry leaders in supporting the development of this vendor ecosystem.

The Test and Validation Lab follows Vodafone’s existing commitments to the OpenRAN ecosystem. In October, Vodafone made a commitment to develop 2,500 mobile sites with OpenRAN technology, providing commercial incentive to the OpenRAN ecosystem. The lab will initially employ 30 engineers, and can grow as more partners are brought in.

Flexible architecture

OpenRAN is based on the concept of interoperability, meaning telecoms operators would be able to source equipment from a wider variety of suppliers. Most Radio Access Network (RAN) technology today is built on proprietary designs, which can tie operators to a small number of vendors. OpenRAN standardises the development of both hardware and software components to ensure all elements are interoperable.

OpenRAN technologies are an important step to improving vendor diversity. This in turn will improve the cost-effectiveness, resilience and security of network deployment.

There are several benefits to this approach, including:

  • Vendor diversity: By ensuring there is interoperability for all hardware and software components, vendors can specialise in specific areas rather than having to produce end-to-end solutions. In today’s vendor ecosystem, having to focus on so many areas means many innovative companies cannot work with telecoms operators. OpenRAN allows for the development of specialist providers, increasing vendor diversity and making telecoms supply chains more resilient and secure.
  • Innovation: With more specialist vendors emerging, investment can be dedicated to more specific workstreams to encourage innovation. Increased competition will also act as a catalyst for innovation.
  • Environmental impact: Vodafone can begin to optimise specific elements of the RAN supply chain. This includes improving its environmental impact, which is simpler when there are different components of the RAN ecosystem.

What is OpenRAN

All mobile masts – big or small – have to be equipped with complex, highly specialised equipment to communicate with the rest of Vodafone’s UK network. Stored in cabinets, often at street level, these units are effectively bespoke computers where a single manufacturer has designed both the hardware and software. They will only work with antennas and other radio elements designed by that same manufacturer and can only be controlled remotely using software from that manufacturer.

OpenRAN changes all of this, introducing far more flexibility and efficiency.

With OpenRAN, standardised, or ‘common off-the-shelf’, computing hardware is used in place of those bespoke units and is no longer tied to the software or radio elements of any single manufacturer.

This helps increase the resilience of a nationwide mobile network by widening the pool of telecoms hardware and software suppliers. More competition means more choice at potentially lower cost, particularly when it comes to rural coverage.

Tasks that require specific, heavily customised hardware can instead be virtualised. This means that it can be performed by software instead, running either locally or remotely in the cloud.

Remote cloud-based applications mean that one data centre can serve several masts. This also helps streamline the construction and day-to-day operation of masts, saving not only build time but making troubleshooting and maintenance far easier, too.

Vodafone and OpenRAN

Embracing the OpenRAN ecosystem also means Vodafone can focus more on software development and software-defined operations. By ensuring any software and hardware components of the network are vendor agnostic and interoperable, upgrades to orchestration, management and automation software do not necessarily mean hardware components have to be replaced.

Not only does this mean upgrades can be more time- and cost-efficient, but they can also be performed more frequently. This change in approach will allow Vodafone to dedicate more resource and investment to software development.

Designing such OpenRAN-compatible units isn’t just a case of coding some software, installing it on a rack-mounted server and then shipping it out the door. Standardised and rigorously documented protocols are essential to ensuring interoperability between units from multiple manufacturers.

The most critical is ensuring they handle radio signals in exactly the same way. Since 2017, Vodafone Group has been leading the Telecom Infra Project’s industry-wide OpenRAN working group to define those standards.

Vodafone UK has been working on and testing OpenRAN units in the lab with an eye to eventual field trials – when it feels the technology is ready.

At the moment, these OpenRAN lab units are 4G-only, not due to any lack of 5G-fuelled ambition, but because it makes engineering sense.

Andrea Donà, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK, said:

“The OpenRAN ecosystem is still in its infancy, and we want to spur its development.

“We want to avoid a Catch-22 situation, where operators wait to buy perfect products, but the OpenRAN vendors need investment to perfect their products. This is why we are announcing this investment in a new R&D lab, as well as committing to 2,500 OpenRAN sites in the UK countryside.

“OpenRAN promises meaningful benefits, including innovation, competition, and carbon savings. But we’ll only deliver these benefits if we support the ecosystem.”

While plenty of work still lies ahead to make it a reality, OpenRAN has the clear potential to usher in an era of even more efficient and reliable 4G and reduce the reliance on one or two equipment manufacturers above all others.

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, added:

“Vodafone is paving the way in building mobile networks with a variety of different equipment suppliers and its Newbury facility will put the UK at the forefront of the telecoms revolution – creating new jobs and opportunities for other firms.

“I thank the company for its continued support of our £250m strategy to diversify the 5G market which will help us build confidence in the security and resilience of this next-generation technology.”

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