Vodafone and Qualcomm Speed 5G Development and Supplier Diversity

Partnership will enable reference designs for Open RAN

A joint announcement by Vodafone and Qualcomm that the companies are teaming up to develop a “technical blueprint” for open radio access network technology, known as Open RAN, adds further momentum to the push for more open networking in the telecom landscape.

Open RAN enables network operators to move from proprietary mobile networks to networking platforms based on general-purpose processors and commercial off-the-shelf IT hardware, with open interfaces that all suppliers can interoperate with. This increases the resiliency of the supplier ecosystem as it enables technology providers to focus on specific capabilities rather than necessarily delivering full end-to-end solutions, although this remains a valid approach. Major mobile equipment suppliers all support Open RAN too.

By allowing niche technology segments to evolve, Open RAN enables operators to work with specialist providers as well as established suppliers. It also paves the way for more flexible mobile network architecture and opens up opportunities for Internet hyperscale companies and major players of the IT and computing community to contribute to mobile networking.

The partnership between Vodafone and Qualcomm aims to create reference designs for Open RAN massive-MIMO radio units and distributed units — the physical 5G radio end point and a layer of the RAN protocol stack in a disaggregated baseband unit, where digital functions are executed. In a virtualized RAN, the baseband unit is split between a central unit and distributed units. In short, the interaction between radio and distributed units is vital to the performance of 5G networks.

There are two principal objectives for this announcement:

  • To broaden the Open RAN ecosystem by lowering the barriers to entry, enabling new players to collaborate with (and potentially compete alongside) established providers of RAN infrastructure — predominantly Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung and ZTE — rather than be reliant on proprietary end-to-end solutions. It also gives those established RAN suppliers a chance to develop their credentials as suppliers of best-of-breed RAN equipment and improve their interoperability in heterogeneous network environments
  • To increase the pace of 5G innovation, ensuring that 5G network capabilities continue to advance to accommodate a growing range of uses in industrial, enterprise, academic and consumer markets.

Amid an increasingly regular cadence of industry news about various aspects of adoption and development of Open RAN, this announcement is notable because it demonstrates the commitment of two globally influential players, bringing their scale, credibility and visibility to the Open RAN cause. This is a statement of intent from Qualcomm in particular, showing its desire to step forward as a driver of Open RAN adoption.

It’s a timely announcement that comes hot on the heels of Vodafone’s launch of its first dedicated test and integration lab in Newbury in the UK. It emphasizes the operator’s market-moving approach to making Open RAN a technical and commercial reality and consolidates its position not just as a thought leader but also as a hothouse for the evolution of the technology.

The move complements other industry efforts, such as the work of the O-RAN Alliance and the Small Cell Forum. These organizations have focussed on standards, developing interoperable interfaces for, and new performance-enhancing capabilities of, end-to-end communication between mobile devices, RAN and core networks — a foundation of the success of 3GPP-based technology.

It’s important that agendas don’t evolve at cross purposes, because although Open RAN is a worthy and viable concept, execution of open infrastructure for 5G networks is a far from trivial, multifaceted technical challenge that demands a concerted effort from the telecom industry.

The partnership between Vodafone and Qualcomm is good for all RAN suppliers but I also expect it to give a particular boost to smaller, specialist new entrants. For example, software-only providers that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a tier-one mobile operator to help incubate their technology, develop solutions to a clear specification and compete for a piece of the growing 5G infrastructure market.

A more diverse and dynamic ecosystem of technology suppliers has a positive impact on supply chains for network infrastructure — from chips or components, to network hardware, to software and systems — for three reasons:

  • It gives operators options that keep network inventory flowing in the event of a product scarcity, as evidenced by the ongoing global shortage of semiconductors — vital for time-to-market schedules in 5G network and service deployment.
  • It prevents a single point of failure from affecting the supply of infrastructure; for example, a single supplier having difficulties, something that has affected the global market in the past year or so, given the politically charged restrictions on trade that Huawei has faced in several international markets.
  • It maintains innovation and competition, which enable operators to choose best-in-kind solutions for specific roles within the network, be confident in interoperability, as well as driving healthily competitive pricing of solutions.

Virtualization of network functions initially came to the mobile core network; running virtualized mobile core functions on commercial off-the-shelf hardware has now become the de facto model. The RAN baseband unit became the next focal point for disaggregating hardware and software, but this is more challenging given the complexity of network functionality in the RAN.

Because of this, reference designs will be valuable for suppliers to work with, as several thorny technical challenges remain for 5G radio units, not least the demands that signalling processing places on virtualized RAN performance. Massive-MIMO, a smart antenna technique, increases the complexity of signal processing, yet it is vital to realizing the potential of 5G as it multiplies the capacity of a mobile connection without needing more spectrum. It also has notable benefits for achieving robust indoor 5G signals.

The reference designs for Qualcomm Radio Unit Platform with support for massive-MIMO and Qualcomm Distributed Unit Platform will be published in 2021. Trials are expected to start in the second half of 2022.

From Qualcomm’s perspective, its tie-up with Vodafone is a clear and decisive step toward commercialization of the Open RAN product line, and I predict that more partnerships with operators will follow.