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Vodafone trials open-access radio technology in UK

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Mobile operator Vodafone is testing its ‘vendor neutral’ radio communications technology in the UK, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The OpenRAN (Radio Access Networks) technology was developed jointly by Vodafone and Intel, with involvement from Parallel Wireless, Mavenir and Lime Microsystems. It is intended to standardise the design and function of hardware and software design in key elements of radio access networks, including masts and antennas. This renders them ‘vendor-neutral’, allowing smaller suppliers to provide equipment and services and – hopefully – bring down the cost of calls, texts and mobile data access.

Vodafone has said that this could provide all sorts of communities with improved mobile internet coverage through the rollout of standardised low-cost equipment.

The OpenRAN project has led to the development of Vodafone’s Open CrowdCell technology, which uses relay nodes to generate tiny cells to expand mobile coverage into localised areas such as festival grounds, vehicles and large buildings.

Vodafone’s OpenRAN technology has been trialled under laboratory conditions in South Africa and deployed for both urban and rural 2G and 4G services in Turkey. This week, the technology will be launched in 120 rural areas in the UK, with additional trials to follow in Mozambique and the DRC.

“OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no one is left behind,” said Nick Read, Vodafone Group CEO. Read added that the technology was ready to be fast-tracked into Europe.

The mobile telecommunications equipment market is dominated by three key players: China’s Huawei, Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia. Carriers tend to use a combination of equipment from these vendors to avoid dependence on a single supplier.

This year, carriers have been spooked by the White House's blacklisting of Huawei – the world’s largest telecommunications manufacturer – over accusations of trade theft, violating trade sanctions and acting as a tool for espionage by the Chinese government: accusations denied in full by Huawei. This has placed question marks over the future of Huawei in the 5G infrastructure of US allies, including the UK, and potentially slowing the rollout of 5G infrastructure.

Last week, Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chair of Indian mobile carrier Airtel, backed Huawei’s involvement in India’s next-generation mobile network, commenting that its 5G equipment is “significantly superior to Ericsson and Nokia”. Huawei's own CEO, Ren Zhengfei, also surprised everyone when he said in an interview that his company is prepared to license its 5G mobile technology to a US firm, or even sell the 5G division wholesale, in order to help alleviate the security concerns over the use of its products in America and elsewhere.

This year, Vodafone has made some bold and unexpected decisions in the race to provide a good value mobile network with wide coverage, including agreeing to share some 5G infrastructure with rival O2 and being the first UK carrier to offer speed-based unlimited mobile data deals.

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