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Vodafone deploy first 4G and 5G OpenRAN sites in UK urban areas

Mobile network operator and broadband ISP Vodafone UK – supported by partnerships with Dell, Intel, Samsung, Wind River, and Capgemini – has announced that they’ve achieved another “European first” by rolling out 4G and 5G OpenRAN (O-RAN) technology to 16 mobile masts in urban parts of Devon (England).

At present, if a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) wants to buy new network kit today then they can usually only choose from a handful of big suppliers (Nokia, Ericsson etc.). The O-RAN approach seeks to standardise the design and functionality of such kit and software, thus increasing the number of companies able to supply them via vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology, and boosting interoperability.

So far, Vodafone has already committed to deploy O-RAN to reach a total of 2,500 sites by the end of 2027 (here and here), but most of that reflects deployments in rural areas. Some initial non-trial deployments have already started in Morehampton, Lifton, Selborne, Pendine, Halkyn, Bradfield and Middleton-in-Teesdale – spanning across Devon, Hampshire, Wales, Yorkshire and County Durham.

However, today’s news signals a new phase in this rollout, with Vodafone revealing that they’ve just started to install the new technology on 16 mobile masts providing connectivity to customers in the Devon towns of Exmouth and Torquay. This is said to be “first example in Europe of the exciting technology being deployed in a live urban environment,” which appears to overlook their earlier O-RAN build in the city of Bath (here).

Urban environments, including transport hubs, are considered to be much more complex for mobile operators to tackle. Put another way, these deployments will be seen as helping to demonstrate the growing maturity of the technology, enabling it to act as a viable alternative to traditional RAN in all scenarios, not just in rural locations.

Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK, said:

“Vodafone was one of the first companies worldwide to commit to OpenRAN at scale. The potential of OpenRAN is huge and clear to see. But to realise this potential, we need to deploy the technology out in the live network and take it from rural to urban locations. This is what we have now done – taking lab innovations into the real world and an essential step forward for the health and resilience of our industry.

OpenRAN is a critical component of Vodafone’s wider network strategy. Not only can OpenRAN lower the barrier for entry for alternative suppliers to add greater resilience and diversity to Vodafone’s supply chain, but this additional competition will also act as a catalyst for innovation, allowing suppliers to specialise in niche areas as opposed to providing “turnkey” solutions.

By decoupling different components of the mobile site from each other through interoperability specifications, Vodafone can work with innovators it would not have been able to otherwise. This flexibility will mean the introduction of new technology and software to increase the energy efficiency of operations, the ability to introduce new specialist services and allowing Vodafone to prioritise investments in new ways as upgrade paths of hardware and software components are no longer intrinsically linked.”

Julia Lopez, UK Digital Infrastructure Minister, said:

“Vodafone’s use of Open RAN in Devon is the first of its kind in Europe, proving once again that the UK is a leader in innovative solutions for mobile connectivity. We encourage other providers to roll out Open RAN in urban areas and continue to support a more diverse, innovative and resilient telecoms supply chain through our £250m investment programme.”

The transition to O-RAN should, hopefully, be fairly seamless for consumers, although there’s a desire to deliver it alongside improvements in mobile broadband speed and network coverage. The work will also complement Vodafone’s plan to retire their “legacy” 3G network from 2023 onwards (here), which will see the associated spectrum being repurposed to boost 4G and 5G performance.

We should add that most of the first UK areas to benefit from the new O-RAN network will be in Wales and South West England. All of this will support the operator’s wider goal of deploying OpenRAN on 30% of mobile sites across its European network by 2030.