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

London
O2 anticipates commercial deployment of O-RAN to accelerate over the next 18-24 months. (Getty Images)

O2, the Telefonica-owned U.K. mobile operator, on Thursday announced plans to introduce Open RAN technology into its network using smaller non-traditional vendors including Mavenir, DenseAir and WaveMobile.

The company said it anticipates commercial deployment of O-RAN to accelerate over the next 18-24 months.

O2 cited flexibility and cost-effectiveness associated with O-RAN, with open and software-defined network capabilities that enables operators to use multiple vendors and not be locked into a single provider.

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The carrier plans to use O-RAN in rural areas with small populations, as well as dense urban locations that require a large number of small cells.

O2’s move to Open RAN follows news in October that parent Telefonica would use U.S.-based Mavenir’s virtualized 4G/5G OpenRAN commercial product.  

RELATED: Mavenir goes commercial with its OpenRAN system

O2’s work with Mavenir will specifically focus on deployments in highly dense areas in London to enhance coverage and capacity for better user experiences in locations like stadiums and shopping centers.

DenseAir, a neutral-host small cell provider, is working with O2 to deploy 4G and 5G networks over an O-RAN solution. O2 noted that the neutral host network will support collaboration on trials and tests of ITS networks at Millbrook, where the operator works with Millbrook Proving Ground as the public and private network provider of 5G connectivity for the testing and development of CAV technology   

“Dense Air and Airspan Networks, our technology partner, have built a unique hyper-dense pervasive 4G and 5G O-RAN based solution at Millbrook. The O-RAN deployment which utilises over 70 radio nodes, 19km Fibre and mmWave front haul delivers network capacity at a scale never seen before at any Proving Ground, allowing the validation of future CAV (Connected and Autonomous Vehicle ) use cases,” said Paul Senior, CEO of Dense Air.

RELATED: Dense Air demos densification for public safety in Dublin

WaveMobile, meanwhile, already has an active O-RAN network that carries mobile traffic for O2 on several sites in the U.K., including Woldingham, Surrey. O2 said that it's developing coverage solutions with WaveMobile that could be used to provide community-based mobile services in "not spots."

“Connectivity is a lifeline for consumers and businesses alike and we’re committed to delivering the best possible network experience for our customers. O-RAN represents a really exciting opportunity to deliver better coverage, in more places, more of the time,” said Brendan O’Reilly, CTO of O2, in a statement. “By opening up our radio access network to smaller vendors, and as we look towards wider adoption of 5G, O-RAN will be part of the solution to bring the latest connectivity to more people around the country.”

Europe embraces Open RAN

European operators like Telefonica and Vodafone have been pushing ahead with O-RAN efforts, both issuing RFIs for open RAN solutions as early as 2018. 

More recently at the November Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit in Amsterdam, Vodafone announced it would issue a request for quotes for open RAN technology across its entire European footprint, representing more than 100,000 sites.

RELATED: Vodafone just gave open RAN vendors a huge opportunity

While traditional vendors like Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei dominate the radio access network (RAN) market, new entrants and early champions of open RAN like U.S.-based Mavenir and Parallel Wireless have started making inroads abroad.

In addition to Telefonica, Vodafone also signed on as a customer when Mavenir launched its commercial OpenRAN product in October. The technology enables remote radio units (RRUs) from any vendor to interface over Ethernet fronthaul with baseband units built on commercial off-the-shelf equipment.

While Mavenir is already a supplier for virtualized core networks, the company is a relative newcomer on the RAN side and has been working to expand awareness of those capabilities.

In addition to the advantage of a virtualized core, “now that we have virtualized RAN, with Open RAN we can address the complete end-to-end capability… and we can do it cost-effectively,” said Mavenir SVP John Baker in an interview with FierceWireless.  

U.S. operators have signaled some interest in open RAN, with all four major carriers signing on to the operator-led O-RAN Alliance, but traction has been slower than abroad, Baker indicated.

“I think the European operators are far, far ahead in terms of Open RAN trials and deployments than what we’re seeing here in the U.S.,” Baker said.  

When Vodafone initiated open RAN trials in the U.K. last October, the operator made clear the effort was partly aimed at expanding its pool of vendors outside of traditional suppliers like Nokia and Ericsson.

RELATED: Vodafone initiates first open RAN trials in the U.K., challenging traditional vendors

“We are pleased with trials of OpenRAN and are ready to fast track it into Europe as we seek to actively expand our vendor ecosystem,” said Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read in a statement.

Around the world, options for telecom network equipment suppliers “has become concentrated in a small handful of companies over the past few years,” Vodafone said at the time, adding that “more choice of suppliers will safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers, increase flexibility and innovation,” and help reduce cost barriers to delivering internet service to rural and remote communities.  

Baker said he’s hopeful that the U.S. will make a similar shift.

“Until the operators buy, this Open RAN technology won’t take off and it does need U.S vendors to follow the line because at the end of the day they’ve essentially created this [vendor] duopoly that now exists in the U.S.,” Baker said. “And I would say it’s in their best interest to find a way out of it.”

As the U.S. government continues to take steps to keep Chinese vendor Huawei out of global 5G networks, a group of U.S. senators this week introduced a bill to funnel more than $1 billion to invest in Western-based alternatives, and require the FCC to direct at least $750 million to create an O-RAN R&D fund.  

RELATED: Britain hedges on Huawei, US senators suggest O-RAN as option

Baker said creating funding for opportunities to expand and grow U.S. capabilities is fantastic, but took issue with comments from federal officials over a lack of U.S. alternatives.

“I think it’s sad they still don’t recognize that there are U.S.-based headquartered and U.S.-funded companies that have this [Open RAN] capability,” Baker said, adding that the lack of awareness is one of the challenges Mavenir faces.

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