Working alongside NEC and Rakuten Symphony, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) has deployed Open RAN technology in their live commercial network for the first time

This week, VMO2 has announced that they have activated an unspecified number of Open RAN macro-sites in Northamptonshire, handling commercial data traffic for customers.

The deployments are reportedly centred around NEC’s fully open end-to-end solution, paired with Rakuten Symphony’s Open RAN software, edge cloud, and radio management and operations system.

The news follows a successful trial that took place last year involving the three partners.

“The successful activation of Virgin Media O2’s first UK macro-sites demonstrates the potential of the multi-vendor Open RAN model,” said Jeanie York, chief technology officer at VMO2. “We are strong believers in the power of diverse Open RAN ecosystems and in NEC, we have a partner that really shares our view. Its industry-leading system integration capabilities are integral in helping us deliver the mobile networks of the future, today.”

The move makes VMO2 the UK’s second mobile operator to have activated Open RAN equipment in a live network, following Vodafone, who switched on their first 4G Open RAN site back in August 2020.

Since then, Vodafone has further deployed Open RAN technology to seven rural locations, aiming to improve 4G coverage for underserved locations.

Vodafone has previously announced that it was working with a variety of Open RAN vendor partners for its deployments, including Dell Technologies, NEC, Samsung, Wind River, Capgemini Engineering, and Keysight Technologies.

Ultimately, Vodafone aims to have 2,500 4G and 5G Open RAN sites live by 2027.

In contrast to Vodafone and now VMO2’s apparent optimism about Open RAN deployment, the UK’s other mobile operators, BT and Three, have been much more reserved with their Open RAN ambitions.

At the start of this year, BT announced that it was trialling Open RAN tech in Hull, installing and testing Nokia’s RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) technology across a number of sites across the city.

Partnering with one of the largest traditional RAN vendors for their Open RAN trial may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but it is in keeping with BT’s somewhat sceptical approach to the new technology, particularly around the added complexity that working with numerous vendors could entail.

Last year, BT’s Chief Architect Neil McRae said that the idea that Open RAN would save operators money was one of the “big myths” being perpetuated by the telecoms industry, though he stressed that Open RAN technology was still in its infancy and would “absolutely play a significant role in our network” in future.

“Open RAN is in its early stages… and having seen the pace it has moved during the past two years, it’s insane how quickly things are developing. But it’s still got some big hurdles to overcome,” explained McRae. “Could we build the network we have today in the UK, not just our network but other networks, purely with Open RAN. Right now, the answer to that is that we absolutely couldn’t. Could that be the future? Absolutely it could, and that’s where we’re engaged…”

Three is even less openly engaged in Open RAN development, having yet to announce a single trial with the developing technology.

Back in December 2020, Three CEO Robert Finnegan said that Open RAN was unlikely to play a major role in the company’s 5G rollout, given that they had already partnered with Ericsson for their RAN needs.

“I wouldn’t say the ship has sailed, but it is close to sailing because everyone is close to rolling out and you’re not going to change midstream,” Finnegan told reporters at the time.

All of these varied approaches to Open RAN are taking place alongside a national government that is a staunch advocate of the new technology, one that is increasingly incentivising the operators to .

In a joint statement with the UK’s mobile operators at the end of 2021, the government said it was now targeting 35% of the nation’s mobile traffic to be carried by Open RAN architecture by 2030. Since then, it has launched numerous initiatives to boost Open RAN R&D focussed around the £250 million Open Networks Research and Development Fund announced this summer.

The government is hopeful that Open RAN will be able to provide UK operators with a broader vendor ecosystem, providing additional security, resilience, and competition for telecoms technology providers.

What impact will Open RAN have on the dynamics of the UK’s mobile industry? Find out from the experts at this year’s live Connected Britain conference

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