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Vodafone Brings open RAN to DRC & Mozambique

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Vodafone is piloting open RAN technology in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique to broaden its potential base of suppliers and extend rural Internet access.

The trials are part of the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) open RAN initiative to reduce deployment and maintenance costs for radio access network (RAN) platforms.

"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 Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read in a statement.

TIP was set up in early 2016 as a result of frustration about a lack of innovation and high costs in the telecom equipment sector. Open RAN aims to define and build 2G, 3G and 4G RAN solutions based on a general-purpose vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology. (See Facebook: TIP Will Open Telecom Hardware and MTN Vows to Connect the Unconnected With Facebook-Inspired TIP Tech.)

Vodafone has already undertaken lab trials of open RAN with Vodacom South Africa, and in Turkey has deployed the technology to deliver 2G and 4G services to customers in both urban and rural areas. The global operator said it is now ready to fast-track open RAN into Europe and had initiated the first European trials in the UK.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read
Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read

The pilots in the DRC and Mozambique have been conducted by Vodacom, which is part of the Vodafone Group, and aim to enable more consumers to make mobile calls and to access data in African nations that have largely rural communities and are near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index . In fact, the DRC is in the bottom ten countries in the world for Internet access, with only 6.2% of the population online, according to Vodafone.

The group said the trial sites across the countries will provide 2G, 3G and 4G services, with 5G possible over open RAN infrastructure in the future.

Vodafone has been at the heart of TIP and open RAN developments since its inception: The specifications are in part based on work undertaken by Vodafone to develop urban small cell technology called Open CrowdCell, which has been deployed in Spain and Turkey. According to Vodafone, Open CrowdCell has "a shorter range than masts and antennae and uses standardised hardware for which a range of suppliers can develop software applications." (See TIP Turns Three, Celebrates Production-Ready Mobile Network Technologies and TIP Offers Progress Report at Summit.)

The DRC and Turkey deployments have been rolled out using technology from US-based company Parallel Wireless, which helps mobile network operators (MNOs) to virtualize their RAN infrastructure and delivers a software-defined end-to-end open RAN offering for coverage and capacity.

Parallel Wireless said in a statement that amid growing demand for mobile broadband services, mobile operators face both capex and opex deployment challenges, especially with maintaining "ALL G" networks or bringing new coverage or capacity to end users.

"Hardware-based networks are costly and difficult to maintain and upgrade. By shifting networks to virtualized OpenRAN, telecom operators can cloudify their networks to deliver coverage to every single subscriber at much lower cost. We are proud to support Vodafone in reimagining wireless infrastructure to be much lower cost ensuring more equal access to connectivity," said Amrit Heer, head of business development for Europe and the Middle East at Parallel Wireless.

Other than Parallel Wireless, Vodafone has started working with a number of new vendors supplying open RAN technology, including US company Mavenir and UK-based Lime Microsystems for Open CrowdCell developments.

Open RAN is fast becoming popular with mobile network operators as they consider the architectures and operational models needed to manage growing but unpredictable volumes of data traffic. It is now being considered by some operators, including influential Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo, as part of their 5G rollouts and, according to a survey commissioned by Mavenir, it figures in the plans of all mobile network operators. (See All Mobile Operators Plan OpenRAN, Finds Mavenir , Alaska's Rakuten Preps for 4G Launch and Japan's NTT DoCoMo Goes for Gold With Multivendor 5G Plans.)

But as some network operators are already finding, the operational challenges of shifting to multivendor, more open-based architectures are significant. (See Orange Issues Plea for Help With O-RAN Integration .)

— The Staff, Connecting Africa

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