Orange to launch cloud-native standalone 5G pilot network in France

Initially launching in Lannion, France, the network will expand to new locations in 2022. (Getty Images)

A focus on cloud and open RAN continues this week alongside Mobile World Congress 2021, as mobile operator Orange announced plans to launch a pilot standalone 5G network in France that is cloud-native end-to-end.

It’s a two-year project, going live in July with partners from the open RAN ecosystem. That includes U.S.-based Mavenir, which is supplying 5G open RAN software. Other vendors include Casa Systems for cloud 5G SA core, Hewlett Packard Enterprise for subscriber data management (SDM), Dell Technologies for infrastructure and services for radio Centralized Unit, Distributed Unit and core, and Xiaomi devices.

The operator said the fully software-enabled standalone 5G network is a first for Europe.

Open RAN software and core functions are going to be deployed on a single Kubernetes-based infrastructure that’s fully managed by Orange.

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By deploying cloud and open RAN technologies in the pilot program, Orange said it aims to learn how they co-exist and impact the network lifecycle. Initially launching in Lannion, France, new locations will be added in 2022 as the network expands to boost the number of users (expected to reach several hundred) and test capabilities like network slicing for vertical use-cases.

The network is also hosting Operations Support System (OSS) for network inventory management and operations and Business Support System (BSS) for CRM and billing, as Orange hopes to use artificial intelligence to help secure the network as well as predictive analytics for network behavior.

“Our ambition is to prepare Orange for the operator of the future by building more resilient and auto-adaptive networks that offer best in class quality of service in each situation,” said Michaël Trabbia, chief technology and innovation officer at Orange, in a statement. “This experimental network represents an important milestone on our way to implement and deploy Open RAN and AI technologies to prepare on-demand connectivity and zero touch operator capabilities.”

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European operators have been at the forefront of support for using open RAN technology. Open RAN has different flavors but typically refers to open interfaces between disaggregated components of the base station, compliant with specifications defined by the O-RAN Alliance and enabling interoperability between different supplier elements.

Orange was one of the major European carriers, alongside Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and Vodafone, that earlier this year came together to express individual commitment to the implementation and deployment of Open RAN solutions. In a Memorandum of Understanding the carriers said they would work with existing and newer ecosystem entrants, European policy makers and industry bodies like the O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project (TIP) to drive the availability of carrier-grade Open RAN technology for commercial deployment.   

That doesn’t mean it’s ditching traditional vendors Ericsson and Nokia. In April Mobile World Live reported Trabbia’s comments on Orange plans to only roll out open RAN-compatible network gear in 2025, but emphasized it was “not something that is against Nokia and Ericsson,” noting both are important contributors to the O-RAN Alliance.  

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In other Orange news this week, the operator deployed a 4G/5G private network with Nokia at Schneider Electric’s plant in Le Vaudreuil, France, with a focus on network slicing in an industrial setting.

Globally the Orange Group is present in 26 countries. As of the end of March, it counted 217 million mobile customers worldwide.

This past September, commercial 5G service launched in major cities of Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, followed in December by 5G service in France. Ericsson was a RAN supplier for both deployments.

In France, Orange is first using 3.5 GHz spectrum after securing 90 MHz of the mid-band airwaves for EUR 854 million at auction in 2020. It’s also using spectrum in the 2.1 GHz range in certain areas, with speeds equivalent to 4G. By 2023, Orange said 5G on 2.1 GHz will offer access to new 5G services like e-health and smart cities in certain 4G zones.

In Spain 5G service from Orange is available in 442 municipalities and 38 provinces. 5G also turned on in Romania, using non-standalone mode.