Vodafone has turned to Japanese and American suppliers to fill the void left by Huawei in its 5G supply chain after the UK telecoms company awarded Europe’s first major “open RAN” contract to a host of alternative suppliers.
The carrier has handed a contract to Samsung Electronics, NEC, Dell and Wind River to build Europe’s first commercial “open RAN” network. Capgemini, the French consulting group, and Keysight Technologies of the US will work on network integration.
The contract offers a huge boost to Samsung and NEC, Asian equipment suppliers that have struggled to compete with Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia in the 4G era, as telecoms companies look to smaller suppliers to build 5G networks.
“Open RAN” is a concept that threatens to break the stranglehold of the largest telecoms equipment suppliers on the wireless market, which tightly bundle proprietary hardware with software. An open system allows small and potentially innovative suppliers to break into the 5G market and has been championed by the US and British governments as a way to increase competition after barring Huawei, the largest supplier of kit, from 5G networks.
The decision by the UK government last year to ban the use of new Huawei equipment for 5G networks from 2021 and to phase out existing kit by 2027 has led operators including Vodafone and Telefónica to accelerate plans to use alternative suppliers of radio equipment.
The UK government and European Commission have pushed the concept of “open RAN” as a way to boost their technology industries by opening up huge amounts of telecoms spending to smaller local hardware and software providers. Both the UK and German governments have made public funds available for the development of open RAN technology but have stopped short of subsidising companies such as Vodafone to replace Huawei equipment.
This has caused tension within the industry given that Ericsson and Nokia, two of Europe’s largest technology companies, already offer alternatives to Huawei.
Vodafone’s initial contracts, awarded after months of testing different open RAN vendors, have however gone to Asian and American suppliers. The company said it could look to use Europe-based vendors in the future. “With political and industrial policy support from the European Commission and the national governments of the EU, open RAN has the potential to bring more European companies into this emerging market,” it said.
The initial work will be in the UK, where 2,500 masts in the south-west of the country and covering most of Wales will be upgraded to use open RAN equipment. It will extend the open RAN push to Europe and Africa over time.
Johan Wibergh, chief technology officer at Vodafone, said the overhaul of the network would increase flexibility for operators. “Open RAN is also reinvigorating our industry. It will boost the digital economy by stimulating greater tech innovation from a wider pool of vendors, bringing much needed diversity to the supply chain,” he said.