Vodafone shows off ‘pick and mix’ nature of Open RAN with NEC


The operator has upgraded one of its existing Open RAN masts in Devon with NEC equipment, demonstrating the benefits of interchangeable RAN components

Today, Vodafone has announced the deployment of NEC’s Massive MIMO technology to one of their live 5G Open RAN sites in Devon.

The deployment is notable for being one of the first examples of Open RAN components being swapped in a live commercial network deployment – a fact which Vodafone says exemplifies the flexibility of Open RAN.

“Massive MIMO is the cherry on top of any 5G installation,” said Vodafone UK Chief Network Officer, Andrea Dona. “It dramatically improves the efficiency of the site, and as a result, provides an enhanced mobile experience for our customers. This is an exciting development because it proves the benefits of OpenRAN. Here, we have replaced a component of a live mobile site with one from a different vendor, without operational complications, and it is running on software from Samsung. This is interchangeability and interoperability in action.”

While the components being swapped out for NEC kit are not specified, it seems likely to be Samsung equipment, given the South Korean vendor was announced as the company’s radio partner for the Open RAN deployment back in 2022. Vodafone also notes that the new NEC equipment is continuing to be run on Samsung software.

NEC has been one of Vodafone’s key partners on Open RAN since 2021, alongside the likes of Dell Technologies, Samsung, Wind River, Capgemini Engineering, and Keysight Technologies.

“We now have NEC Massive MIMO working in tandem with Samsung Networks radios, both of which are powered by Samsung management software. Underneath the hood, we have Dell Technologies servers with Intel chips, supported by the Wind River container-as-a-service software,” said Dona in a LinkedIn post.

Vodafone says it will use this new RAN configuration for the 2,500 Open RAN sites it aims to have deployed in th UK by 2027, primarily in Wales and the South West of England.

When the concept of Open RAN first hit the international stage around 2020, it came with the promise of a far more diverse vendor ecosystem, where interoperable RAN components from multiple providers could coexist happily within a single base station. Part of the motivation was to wean operators off their reliance on single RAN vendor giants – particularly Huawei –

Since then, however, this promise has gone largely unfulfilled. There have been relatively few commercial Open RAN deployments, and those that do exist are still typically reliant on a small number of players – far from the vibrant vendor tapestry vaunted at the start of the decade.

To further complicate matters, major vendors like Nokia and Ericsson are playing an increasingly significant role in the Open RAN ecosystem. Despite initially claiming that Open RAN could never contend with the capabilities of their single RAN solutions, both companies notably joined the O-RAN Alliance and have been gradually increasing their commitment to the concept of interoperability.

Indeed, we only need to look at AT&T’s decision to partner with Ericsson in a $14 billion Open RAN deal late last year to see that an Open RAN future for the telecoms industry need not necessarily mean a reduction in the network presence of the vendor giants.

The good news is, as proven by Vodafone’s announcement today, that this need not be the case forever. As Open RAN technology grows in popularly and maturity, component switching will become an even simpler process, potentially allowing operators greater opportunity to experiment with smaller vendors in live networks.

Whether this will be enough to persuade them to diversify significantly, however, remains to be seen.

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