Aiming to lower the entry barrier for many companies and drive diversification of network equipment suppliers, Vodafone and Qualcomm Technologies have announced plans to join forces to develop the technical blueprint for more equipment suppliers to help build the 5G networks of the future, using Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) technology.

The partners said that currently, where two or more suppliers are used in a network, each one is deployed in a cluster, and the points at which they meet are often the most challenging in terms of performance. As a result of their joint work, they said that customers will benefit as Vodafone and other telecommunications companies mix and match hardware and software from a choice of suppliers to extend 5G networks to the specific geographical areas where they are most needed.

In particular, the reference designs will be employed to support emerging and established network infrastructure suppliers develop high-performance, virtualised, interoperable and modular 5G networks at scale. This aims to make cellular infrastructure more innovative and competitive.

The reference design will combine Vodafone’s engineering expertise at building high-capacity, large-scale networks with Qualcomm Technologies’ prowess in developing application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) solutions for device and infrastructure products. This combination aims to ensure Open RAN is ready for use in 5G networks and capable of supporting bandwidth-hungry applications such as virtual and augmented reality devices, even in busy urban areas.

The partnership also comes just days after Vodafone revealed it had opened an Open RAN test and integration lab at its technology campus in the UK.

Vodafone sees Open RAN as being able to help it separate the hardware and software components of the network to select optimal solution providers for specific roles, rather than proprietary end-to-end solutions on which most RAN technologies are built. The result of this is that it can tie operators to a small number of suppliers.

Open RAN is also seen by Vodafone as a catalyst in the RAN domain to evolve to become an organisation offering a software-defined and virtualised network with autonomous operation, utilising artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The operator sees many benefits to this approach. These include lowering the barrier to entry for RAN companies and increasing the resiliency of the ecosystem, with technology companies able to scale specific capabilities rather than focusing on a complete end-to-end solution.

Vodafone said this approach would allow niche technology segments to work with more specialist providers, as well as provide the ability to work with global IT suppliers and existing platforms brought by the capability to deploy Open RAN on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) general-purpose processor (GPP) platforms widely deployed in IT systems.

“Global supply chains need a diverse and vibrant supplier ecosystem to keep them moving in the event of a product shortage or a single supplier having difficulties,” said Vodafone head of network architecture Santiago Tenorio.

“Open RAN provides greater supplier diversity by allowing many more small suppliers to compete on the world stage. Following the recent launch of our new Open RAN Test and Validation Lab, combining the creativity of Vodafone Engineering with that of our partners, we’re delighted to be partnering with Qualcomm Technologies to give smaller suppliers the best start.”

Dino Flore, Qualcomm’s vice-president for technology in Europe, said: “Virtualised and Open RAN offer a significant opportunity to make 5G networks more flexible and cost efficient, transforming them into a platform for innovation.

“The collaboration to develop comprehensive solutions from Open RAN RU with massive multiple input, multiple output (MaMIMO) capabilities to high performance distributed unit (DU) platforms provides an important step forward in speeding up the transition to open, virtualised and interoperable radio access networks.”



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