Telefonica’s O2 trials open RAN with NEC using Altiostar software

open sign
O2-parent Telefónica announced plans to launch 4G and 5G Open RAN trials in core markets of Germany, Spain, and Brazil and the UK this year.(Getty Images)

Telefónica’s O2 completed an open RAN trial on the mobile operator’s core network in the U.K., with NEC acting as system integrator to design a customized architecture that used Altiostar vRAN software.

The trial took place at NEC’s newly created Center of Excellence (CoE) in the U.K. and used hardware from GigaTera Communications and Supermicro. NEC opened its CoE to pre-integrate open RAN components from different vendor partners, coordinating the design for operator-specific needs. NEC also has a complementary open RAN laboratory in India. For the trial with O2, NEC verified end-to-end testing and interoperability.  

O2 has been working on open RAN efforts since early 2020 and parent Telefónica announced plans to launch 4G and 5G open RAN trials in core markets of Germany, Spain, and Brazil and the U.K. this year.

RELATED: UK’s O2 taps non-traditional vendors for O-RAN project

European operators haven’t been shy about their desire to implement open RAN, and Telefónica’s alongside Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Vodafone joined together last month to help the technology and ecosystem becomes competitive with traditional RAN offerings.

Traditionally, RAN hardware, software and radio components have been sourced from the same vendor – with big hitters like Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia leading the market. An often-touted benefit of open RAN is the avoidance of vendor lock-in along with more supplier choice as newer and smaller players enter the scene.

While operators are interested in open RAN (including in the U.S. where Dish plans to build a new nationwide network based on open architecture), the European carriers indicated additional support is needed.

RELATED: AT&T moves forward on open RAN while T-Mobile takes cautious approach: Special Report

In signing a Memorandum of Understanding in January, four of Europe's biggest operators plan to work together across ecosystem partners, industry organizations like the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), and with European policy-makers.

“We remain committed to rolling out our Open RAN program across Europe, and we’re taking it even further,” stated Vodafone Group CTO Johan Wibergh in the MoU announcement. “We aim to open R&D labs for new, smaller suppliers to develop their products. But to do this we need a supportive investment environment and political backing, and we urge European governments to join us in creating the Open RAN ecosystem.”

RELATED: Marek’s Take: Is open RAN’s bubble about to burst?

In the U.S., federal agencies like the FCC have shown interest in supporting or exploring the development of open RAN. Dish Network has plans to use vRAN software from Altiostar and Fujitsu radios. Dish is also working with Taiwanese radio-vendor MTI, which happens to be a partner in NEC’s Center of Excellence.

Ericsson says open RAN not ready for prime time

As Ericsson reported fourth-quarter earnings last week, the Swedish vendor’s chief executive suggested that open RAN technology isn’t mature enough yet and said the discussion of whether an open architecture can be truly competitive is a longer-, rather than near-, term question.

“The integrated solutions will continue to be a majority of the network deployment for the coming years,” said Ericsson CEO Borje Ekholm during Q4 earnings call, citing speed to market and price performance reasons. “And this is in reality driven by the two large areas in North America as well as in China, where they are pushing ahead on deploying 5G now.”

Ekholm emphasized that Ericsson is involved in the open RAN discussion, but that Europe in particular should be more focused on speeding up 5G deployments overall. Ericsson just last fall unveiled plans for a Cloud RAN 5G platform, with the fist stage planned for the fourth quarter of 2021.

RELATD: Ericsson's profits soar on 5G, cautions about China

“We don’t really see it [open RAN] ready for prime time, except for some low-performance applications or segments in the market,” Ekholm said, according to a transcript. “The discussion ought to be, especially here in Europe … shouldn’t we drive forward on 5G networks now. And otherwise, if we don’t do that, we expose the whole industry in Europe to fall behind...”

In recent comments to FierceWireless, Ed Gubbins, principal analyst at GlobalData, noted why leading RAN vendors might not be eager to jump on the virtualized RAN (which overlaps with, but has distinctions from, open RAN) train.

“It’s not surprising that most established RAN vendors would be resistant to vRAN, because it threatens to disrupt their historical cost structure and enable a new breed of competitors,” wrote Gubbins, pointing to newer RAN vendor’s like U.S.-based Altiostar and Mavenir.  

RELATED: vRAN performance a match for legacy approach, Verizon VP says

Verizon had a recent 5G vRAN deployment using Samsung, Intel, HPE, and Wind River.

“The more operators like Verizon roll out vRAN, the more other operators may warm to the concept, which could enable vendors like Altiostar and Mavenir and effectively expand the RAN-vendor landscape and foster greater competition among RAN vendors,” Gubbins said.