European telco giants Orange and Vodafone have agreed to throw their considerable weight behind shared Open RAN networks.

The rollout will focus on rural areas, which makes sense because the lower population density not only makes it more expensive for a single operator to cover, but also means any network that is deployed is less likely to suffer from congestion.

Orange and Vodafone plan to crack on straight away with a pilot project this year near Bucharest, Romania. They said in a joint statement on Wednesday that this will give them valuable real-world experience of this new operational model, which can then be applied to deployments in other locations further down the line. They claim this is the first time two telcos have agreed to share Open RAN infrastructure in Europe.

“Orange is excited to co-operate with Vodafone on a first Open RAN sharing deployment in Romania, which is a significant milestone on the road to wide-scale open RAN adoption across Europe. It is a major step towards agile and fully-automated networks, unleashing the potential of virtualisation and AI to boost performance while driving both infrastructure and operational costs down,” said Michaël Trabbia, chief technology and innovation officer at Orange.

“By combining resources, we will reduce the cost of hardware, minimise fuel consumption and the need for duplicate sites whilst eradicating coverage not-spots,” added Vodafone’s chief network officer Alberto Ripepi.

The two telcos said Open RAN sharing is markedly different from traditional RAN sharing. In the latter scenario, one operator is typically responsible for all the component parts of a shared site, with both operators using the same RAN vendor or software, and lifecycle management. But when it comes to a shared Open RAN network, operators use the same radio units (RUs) and the same cloud infrastructure, but use their own separate RAN software. This allows each operator to maximise the advantages that come with spreading the hardware cost, but still maintain individual control over services and capacity.

“Open RAN is a great opportunity to take network sharing to a whole new dimension, with even higher operator differentiation thanks to the ability for each of the partners to tune its network more independently according to its promises towards its own customers,” said Trabbia.

“Open RAN also means we can more quickly add new software features without necessarily replacing the hardware components, which is often the case today. This minimises any disruption to service and ensures customers in rural areas receive the same upgrades as those in the cities,” said Ripepi.

Orange and Vodafone plan to test the shared Open RAN network throughout 2023, giving them a like-for-like comparison with their existing networks. Once they are able to confirm feature and performance parity between the two, they will extend their shared Open RAN to other markets.

The announcement comes a day after Orange and Vodafone joined Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica and TIM in setting out their plans for Open RAN this year.

Priorities include maturing the technology to further close the gap to traditional networks, making Open RAN a more viable option in urban areas. They also want to advance the process for certifying new Open RAN products. Other focus areas include network security and energy efficiency.

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