The trial will deploy Nokia’s RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) technology across a number of sites in the city, aiming to optimise network performance
The topic of Open RAN has been of growing importance for operators around the world for over two years now, with most major international players exploring the technology in some form or another. In January 2021, for example, a quintet of major European operators – Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, Orange, Vodafone, and TIM – signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on further developing the technology.
In the UK, all four of the country’s mobile operators have demonstrated similar interest in exploring Open RAN’s potential, each conducting individual trials last year. Their interest, at least in part, is bolstered by that of the UK government, who have looked favourable on the concept of Open RAN networks ever since it was first introduced as a solution to the security threat posed by ‘hostile vendors’ back in 2020.
In fact, late last year, the UK government announced that it had signed a new agreement with all four of the UK’s mobile operators, pledging to see at least 35% of all of the UK’s mobile network traffic being carried over Open RAN infrastructure by 2030. The same agreement also detailed plans to sunset 2G and 3G services by 2033, with both BT and Vodafone having since suggested they will be able to shutdown their 3G networks in 2023, ten years ahead of that schedule.
But for BT specifically the industry-wide hype surrounding Open RAN could be overly optimistic, at least this early in the nascent technology’s development. Back in November last year, Neil McRae, BT’s Chief Architect, said that “one of the biggest myths is that open RAN is going to save us money”.
“I look at that with a lot of scepticism,” he said. “I know how to write open source code, I know how much Intel CPUs cost and how much the other five guys who make L1 chips cost.”
Nonetheless, he was keen to point out that BT had been deeply involved with Open RAN development for many years alongside groups like the Telecoms Infra Project (TIP) and the O-RAN Alliance, and it continues to view the technology as a great source of innovation.
Ultimately, McRae’s argument was that the technology is simply not mature enough yet for widespread deployment, but nonetheless presented valuable opportunities for the future.
“Could we build the network we have today purely with open RAN? Absolutely not,” said McRae. “Could that be a future? Absolutely it could.”
“We’re going to use it when it suits us best. Which is soon, in some cases.”
Now, it seems that BT is preparing to increase its work on Open RAN in 2022, announcing today that it will conduct an open RAN trial in Hull. The test will see BT install Nokia’s RIC technology at several sites across the city, exploring its ability to optimise network performance.
“Our Open RAN trial with Nokia is one of many investments we are making to boost the performance of our market-leading 4G and 5G EE network and deliver an even better service to our customers. Our high performance, high efficiency radio access equipment, provided by the major global vendors, has enabled us to roll-out 4G and now 5G at scale, with the confidence that our customers will get the best network experience possible,” said McRae of today’s announcement.
In addition to the ongoing trial, BT has also announced it will open an Open RAN Innovation Centre at its Adastral Park facility later this year, following similar moves by Orange, Vodafone, and NEC over the past year. The centre will provide a test bed for various vendors to trial their equipment, as well as providing a platform on which open architecture can be further developed.
In the UK, Vodafone is arguably the current leader when it comes to Open RAN, having last year made a commitment to rollout around 2,600 Open RAN sites in rural Wales and South West England by 2027. Last week, the operator switched on the UK’s first commercial 5G Open RAN network in the UK.
Will Open RAN change the face of the UK telecoms industry or is it still a pipe dream? Find out what the operators think at this year’s live Connected Britain event
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