If MWC Barcelona hadn’t been cancelled, it likely would have generated a lot of news about O-RAN. The O-RAN standardization work has garnered the spotlight lately, even capturing the attention of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who are touting it as an alternative to proprietary equipment from Huawei.
O-RAN refers to the open radio access network (RAN) standardization work of the O-RAN Alliance, which aims to disaggregate hardware from software in the RAN and use open interfaces so that operators are not stuck with just one vendor. Instead, they will be able to mix and match hardware and software from different sources.
Certainly, attention from U.S. senators has to be cause for celebration by vendors that are working on open RAN such as Dell Technologies, Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless. And MWC Barcelona would have been an ideal venue to hear from early-adopter operators that are pursuing O-RAN for their networks.
One of those early-adopter operators is Vodafone. In November 2019, Vodafone’s head of network strategy and architecture Santiago Tenorio announced at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit in Amsterdam that Vodafone would issue a request for quotes (RFQ) for open RAN technology for its entire European footprint.
“That’s significantly more than 100,000 sites, and all the technologies are to tender — 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G,” said Tenorio. “We’ve invited the incumbent suppliers in Europe of course, but we’ve also invited the open RAN suppliers.” He didn’t sound too optimistic about the incumbent suppliers. Apparently, they hadn’t even responded to a Vodafone request for information about open 5G new radio equipment.
Mostafa Essa, an AI and data analytics distinguished engineer with Vodafone, spoke with FierceWireless in advance of the (now dead) MWC Barcelona 2020. “If you use a specific vendor for the RAN and ask him to carry some new features for something you are needing that is impacting your customers, they have to go back to their R&D and build up features,” said Essa. “Then we’ll test and give feedback. Right now, by using the open RAN concept, you can build up whatever you want whenever you want. It’s not connected to vendors’ roadmaps.”
He said Vodafone has been conducting field trials in some of its markets in Europe, including Spain, Italy and in a rural area north of London. Vodafone used Parallel Wireless for its first open RAN tests, which it conducted in Turkey and Africa.
In terms of the initial tests, Essa said, “We have a lot of instability, which is to be expected in trials. Right now, we are in the building phase. When you roll out this technology, sometimes you can get a lot of dropped calls and so on. But it’s the same as working with the vendors…..who are building systems with their own closed-source software.”
He said the benefit of operators doing this work themselves is that they can build up their own checklists of best practices.
Vodafone recently became the newest operator member to join the O-RAN Alliance, which now counts 24 carriers as members.
“The adoption of the O-RAN Alliance by the industry is an inspiring example of how operators and suppliers around the world can sit down together to design and release technical standards that work for everyone,” said Andre Fuetsch, chairman of the O-RAN Alliance and chief technology officer of AT&T.
The O-RAN Alliance members were prepared to showcase 22 demonstrations of real O-RAN based equipment implementations at MWC Barcelona. The group says that as a result of MWC’s cancellation, many of these demonstrations will be made available as part of a virtual showcase, which will be announced soon.