OpenRAN pitches itself to African mobile operators as a way of cutting costs and helping rural roll-out

14 February 2020

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OpenRAN may yet crack open the cosy hold that traditional equipment vendors have over mobile operators. Africa needs this to happen because cheaper data prices and wider rural roll-out relies on cutting costs. Russell Southwood spoke to

Eugina Jordan, VP Marketing, Parallel Wireless about what OpenRAN offers.

If mobile operators globally are moving to a more data-centric future then their business models will have to change to reflect the digital transition. In the African context, data will not produce the kind of returns voice did in the early 2000s. Something has to change and one fundamental change will be to how the core network operates.

Hybrid analog and digital networks have been made to work but they are much less efficient than all digital networks. Three changes need to happen to make the digital transition. Firstly, there needs to be a single IP standard for mobile operators: SRV6 has been proposed but is not yet meeting widespread acceptance, something I will return to in a future issue.

Secondly, the way in which networks are provisioned has to change. In the past every upgrade from one iteration of G to another (say 3G to 4G) required a significant component of new hardware. These upgrades were usually supplied as a package by telecoms equipment vendors and costs ran to the millions and tens of millions of dollars. In future, these kinds of upgrades will be software-defined, allowing equipment a longer shelf-life.

Thirdly, if equipment is “dumb”, it will low operators to demand “cost disruption” from their equipment vendors. A great deal of the ‘dumb’ equipment might be simply purchased “from the catalogue”. These fundamental shifts might challenge how telco equipment is delivered by the tight tri-opoly of Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.

Why is this important for Africa’s mobile operators? At a time when revenues are under considerable pressure, it will allow them to cut costs: Parallel Wireless claims it will be between 20-30%.

For rural base station roll-outs, it will allow operators to build up a customer base with 2G before rolling out 4G. Early indications from Vodacom’s OpenRAN roll-out in DRC (see below) seem to indicate better than expected data traffic.

At the heart of the forces trying to change how network is provisioned is the Facebook-created Telecoms Infrastructure Project (TIP). It started in 2017 with Open Cellular, which was an initiative to produce a low-cost base station, with rural areas as the focus. However, although it has inspired changes in cost for rural base stations, power and maintenance remain as key hurdles. Also you can’t turn a low cost base station into a 5G base station, if and when the moment arrives.

So TIP changed its focus to OpenRAN and formed a partnership with Parallel Wireless. As Eugina Jordan puts it:” You need to move to software defined hardware. It’s important that hardware can support all the different versions of G and both go up and down in defining them. This is what the OpenRAN controller software from Parallel Wireless does. The base station and the tower end? You forget it”.

“There are many OpenRAN initiatives with other vendors. It’s not necessarily hardware centric. It’s all about cloudifying the network and pushing mobile operators to deploy OpenRAN. It has open standards and our controller works with those standards”.

“This modernized 2G legacy for Vodacom. You can be running 2G and 4G on the same base station. We make 2G and 3G cloud mature. With Vodafone, Telefonica and MTN we are moving from a silo for each G to a unified, cloud-defined service. For 5G option 3 (sometimes called dual connectivity) which works with existing LTE, it’s just software. The hardware is dumb. The power is in the software.

Vodafone customers in Turkey, in urban and rural parts of the country are receiving 2G and 4G from the same base station. At the same time, customers in DRC are receiving 2G and 3G service from the same base station in the current trial:”Multi-technology RRUs are software-defined, easy to deploy and maintain”. There 25 sites currently operating in the DRC.

At the TIP Summit back in November 2019 Vodafone’s Head of Network Strategy and Architecture Santiago Tenorio announced that Vodafone it was going top issue a request for quotes (RFQ) for open RAN technology for its entire European footprint.

“That’s significantly more than 100,000 sites, and all the technologies are to tender — 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G,” said Tenorio. “We’ve invited the incumbent suppliers in Europe of course, but we’ve also invited the open RAN suppliers.”

“The attraction for Vodacom and others is always cost. So our first targeted audience is the mobile operators who need to think differently. If they don’t find ways to reduce costs they won’t survive. This way can reduce costs by 20-30%. Hardware becomes much less important.”

In Peru, Internet para Todos (translates as Internet for All) now operates around 650 mobile sites covering about 800,000 people. And while half were built by a traditional vendor (understood to be Huawei) the rest are billed as OpenRAN sites featuring Parallel Wireless products. The savings claims are bold. David del Val Latorre, Telefónica's CEO of research and development, says the cost of electronic gear was half as much at the OpenRAN sites as it was at the traditional ones. That has been critical in allowing Internet para Todos to serve communities where incomes are low. Already, it boasts 450,000 subscribers, having only launched in May.

However, not everything is plain sailing. There are still co-ordination issues between OpenRAN and the industry alliance O-RAN (whose membership is a combination of operators and equipment vendors). There are still a number of issues over which there is as yet no formal agreement. Traditional industry/vendor bodies tend to be much influenced by incumbent vendors. To win the arguments for a different way of doing network provision, OpenRAN will have to establish a wider set of roll-outs after the trials have been completed.