Virgin Media O2 taps Ericsson for standalone 5G core in U.K.

Ericsson said the shift to standalone will help accelerate the digital overhauls of Virgin Media O2’s enterprise customers. (Getty Images)

Recently formed Virgin Media O2 joined forces earlier this year and has now tapped Ericsson to deploy a 5G standalone core, utilizing the Swedish vendor’s cloud infrastructure.

The operator is a combination of Liberty Global’s Virgin Media, a fixed broadband provider, and Telefonica’s O2, a mobile carrier in the U.K., which merged in a joint venture.  

Work is already underway with Ericsson, the vendor said Monday, as the partners unify non-standalone (NSA) 5G and standalone (SA) 5G into an integrated dual-mode core network. The core is to be hosted on Ericsson cloud infrastructure in the operator’s data centers. The Ericsson 5G dual-mode core is cloud-native and based on containers.

RELATED: Dish picks Nokia for containerized 5G SA core

The new agreement means Ericsson is an end-to-end partner for the U.K. operator, having supplied radio access network (RAN) gear for O2’s 5G launch and continued 5G rollout and upgrade.

Like many early 5G rollouts, when O2 first launched 5G in the U.K. 2019 it used non-standalone mode, which still relies on a 4G core. The shift to SA takes off the proverbial training wheels, setting the groundwork for advanced techniques like network slicing, as well as ultra-low latency and the ability to handle large amounts of data. Standalone 5G is a services-based architecture (SBA), helping operators to introduce high-performance services more easily for both consumer and enterprise customers.

In particular, Ericsson called out accelerating the digital overhauls of Virgin Media O2’s enterprise customers.

RELATED: Ericsson scores 5G core win with Vodafone in the U.K.

Some features Virgin Media O2 plans to utilize are network orchestration, automation, enhanced fault and performance management, and Ericsson Traffic Monitoring and Analysis (TMA) for troubleshooting and analytics in real-time.

“This is an exciting time for our award winning network, as we prepare for 5G Standalone,” said Jorge Ribeiro, director of Service Platform Strategy & Engineering at Virgin Media O2, in a statement, adding teams are already working to deploy infrastructure with Ericsson. “The benefits of 5G Standalone are significant as we aim to supercharge the UK’s digital economy, and we look forward to rolling it out for our customers in the near future.”

5G standalone promises key features, but deployments are still in early phases.

T-Mobile was the first operator to deploy a large-scale standalone 5G network in the U.S., launching SA 5G nationwide in August 2020. Dish Network is going with SA from the start for its greenfield 5G network build and broke ground on its first site in Orlando earlier this month. Dish is using Nokia for its containerized 5G core. Also in July, Samsung helped KT Corporation roll out South Korea’s first commercial 5G SA network.

RELATED: Rakuten fetes 5G SA data transfer with Tokyo Tech

A recent five-year forecast from Dell’Oro Group said standalone 5G core roll outs from major service providers in China continue to exceed the firm’s expectations, and noted China Broadcasting Network will start its SA 5G build this year.

Ericsson this month lost share in a recent 5G radio access network (RAN) tender for China Mobile, against a backdrop of tensions between China and Sweden. In the second quarter the Swedish vendor told investors to prepare for decreased share in mainland China and CEO Börje Ekholm said a material loss would delay reaching financial targets for its digital services business (which includes 5G core).

The Dell’Oro report cited a 3% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) for the mobile core network market overall from 2020 to 2025, with cumulative investment of more than $50 billion from 2021-2025. 

RELATED: Ericsson’s China sales dive 60% in Q2

The 5G portion of the mobile core network is expected to grow faster, with 35% CAGR for the for the forecast period. By 2025, Dell’Oro expects 5G-related mobile core functions to represent more than 70% of the revenue mix for the 4G/5G core market.

Additional 5G SA network deployments will come later in 2021 in places like Australia, Germany, Japan and South Korea, according to the report. AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, are anticipated to give a bigger SA push in 2022 and 2023.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon hedge on 5G core timelines

In other Virgin Media O2 news Monday, the operator launched what it says is the first-ever National Databank. The databank will be open to all mobile operators and is aimed at providing free mobile data to people who are in need or can’t afford data – tackling what Virgin Media O2 described as data poverty. The program is in partnership with the Good Things Foundation, which is providing data through its network of 5,000 community groups to distribute to people across the U.K.

It’s initially starting with a three-month pilot currently underway alongside 10 community groups in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. By the end of 2023, Virgin Media O2 committed to donate 7.5 million GB of data, which it says is enough to provide 319 million hours of internet use to 200,000 people.

Updated with additional information on Ericsson position in China.