Vodafone is to embrace technology from smaller suppliers as the UK group rips out and replaces Huawei-made 5G kit to comply with a government mandate on phasing out the Chinese company.
The group has pledged to use equipment made by smaller ‘open RAN’ vendors to provide 5G signals for a fifth of its UK network sites by 2027, in a move also aimed at breaking the stranglehold of large players including Nokia, Ericsson and ZTE.
Traditional mobile networks rely on radio access equipment — the kit that sits on masts and rooftops used to transmit mobile phone signals — that tightly bundles proprietary hardware with software provided by the biggest groups. However open RAN systems allow networks to chop and change those components and use kit from smaller companies.
Vodafone’s pledge to use emerging open RAN tech for at least 2,600 masts and rooftops is the largest confirmed promise made by a European carrier to embrace technology companies from outside the established supply chain.
“This commitment can get open RAN ready for prime time,” Scott Petty, chief technology officer at Vodafone UK, told the Financial Times.
He added that although open RAN was still a nascent technology more suited to rural coverage than dense urban areas, including such a large chunk of its network would create an opportunity for it to push into the mainstream. Spanish group Telefónica is also exploring greater use of open RAN systems for future upgrades.
Vodafone’s plan represents a boost for the UK government, after a task force launched to help strip Huawei equipment out of the country’s 5G networks by 2027 identified open RAN as a potential growth opportunity for the UK.
It could also support a government ambition to rebuild a foothold in the telecoms equipment market if growing open RAN use is used to justify research and development subsidies and companies in the field based themselves in Britain.
“The UK could regain a foothold which it hasn’t had since the break-up of Marconi,” said Mr Petty, referring to the collapsed British telco.
US companies Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and Altiostar have emerged as open RAN specialists in recent years, hoping to compete with larger companies, while hardware vendors like Samsung, NEC and Fujitsu are hoping to win market share as Huawei kit is removed.
The move to ban Huawei, the world’s biggest telecoms equipment maker, from 5G networks has meant networks have turned to Ericsson and Nokia to fill the void. BT has signed deals with both the Swedish and Finnish companies to replace Huawei kit over time, putting the cost of complying with the government phase out at £500m.
Ian Livingston, the former BT chief executive and trade minister heading up the government’s telecoms task force, told MPs last week that the push to foster open RAN would grant telecoms companies a greater choice of vendors in the wake of the Huawei ban and avoid a bottleneck in the supply chain.
Using open RAN is a more costly exercise which has led to some calls within the industry for more financial support. Mr Petty said this need not be in the form of direct subsidies to use the equipment but could be directed at speeding up the development of chips and software to compete with established companies such as Huawei.
Get alerts on 5G networks when a new story is published