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Vodafone Draws Bead On Open RAN Silicon

December 15, 2022

Vodafone plans to further support new vendors in the evolving Open RAN ecosystem by helping specialist chipset manufacturers secure a foothold in the provision of next generation networks.

Recently, Vodafone announced collaborative arrangements with companies such as Accelercomm in the UK and US-based EdgeQ. Today, it unveiled the latest company to join the Open RAN cast, Saankhya Labs, which is headquartered in India.

Open RAN Chips

These companies are pioneering the development of specialised silicon chips for Open RAN. Known as ‘accelerators’, these chips are critical in being able to apply a 5G technology called Massive MIMO to Open RAN, giving it the capacity to support thousands of users from a single mast.

Network traffic can be more effectively processed because these accelerators have ‘dedicated network aware silicon.’ This means that they are purposely built for mobile base stations, performing better than general purpose silicon chips with the added benefit of lower energy consumption. In future, Vodafone predicts that they will become a significant contributor to its ‘green’ agenda of achieving net zero by 2040.

Open RAN chips

Massive MIMO might sound like the bigger cousin of a Pokémon character, but there’s nothing cartoony about the way it increases the number of user connections for a single antenna. This significantly improves the performance for customers when using their handsets in a busy area such as shopping centres and business parks, without the need for multiple new masts.

Alberto Ripepi, who will become Vodafone Chief Network Officer from the start of 2023, explained: “With plans to have 30% of our European networks running on Open RAN by 2030, we aim to open the door to more smaller companies to drive innovation, whilst strengthening the supply chain.”

Alberto Ripepi becomes Chief Network Officer of Vodafone from the start of 2023

Open RAN, unlike traditional single-supplier mobile sites, separates software from hardware. This means Vodafone can work with smaller specialist suppliers to drive greater innovation and security to ensure 5G, and later 6G, reaches its full potential.

Accelerator Demo at Mobile World Congress (MWC)

At the start of 2022, Vodafone opened a dedicated facility in Málaga, one of its new European innovation centres, to test accelerators. Vodafone’s engineers are now putting these through their paces in time to show how Open RAN can deliver features, security, and performance on a par with traditional mobile radio networks at MWC, early next year.

For Vodafone, the implementation of accelerators will facilitate the next step in the wider deployment of Open RAN and help the technology to branch out from its rural roots into highly populated towns and cities.

Simply put, accelerators have the potential to take on much of the heavy lifting calculations currently performed by standard central processing units (CPU) and thereby speed up the processing of an array of complex network tasks such as converting voice and data into radio waves. The trick is to ensure today’s different flavours of RAN software can seamlessly work across multiple vendor accelerators.

“Bringing in new vendors will ensure Open RAN sticks to its principles,” Alberto added. “In the same way Linux adopted an open-source approach to break the stranglehold of proprietary operating systems, democratisation of mobile networks will be driven by start-ups and smaller vendors.”

Accelercomm, EdgeQ, Lime Microsystems and Saankhya Labs

Saankhya Labs has pioneered the development of programmable silicon architectures fora number of Radio Technologies. It is now building the next level of disaggregation RAN framework based on a standard microservices architecture – like the ingredients of a dish, microservices are parts of an application that can be applied separately but work wonderfully well together.

In this scenario, new software can work across any hardware, allowing an operator to choose the best combination for the job. In addition, Saankhya Labs is also defining a chip architecture which natively supports this framework to help drive down the total cost of ownership of Open RAN systems.

Engineers at Saankhya Labs

The development of fully programmable, open hardware and the standardisation of the Layer 1 interface – the physical infrastructure that transports customer data as electrical signals – are key to drive greater interoperability within the Open RAN ecosystem. A more modular system will allow operators to respond quickly to customer demand for more capacity and new services.

Parag Naik, Chief Executive Officer of Saankhya, added: “We share Vodafone’s vision in building more open, sustainable and customer-focused networks of the future. Our innovative solutions are built on that model.”

Similarly, EdgeQ and Vodafone are working together to prepare Open RAN for life in the fast lane. By compacting 4G, 5G, networking, and cloud functionalities into a single-chip, EdgeQ has developed an Open RAN solution with Massive MIMO, performance and power efficiency in mind.

Accelercomm is another company to keep an eye on. Born out of Southampton University in the UK, it is now focused on improving the performance and spectral efficiency of Open RAN based networks, while ensuring interoperability of hardware and software.

Start-ups are crucial

“OpenRAN is key to transforming networks from pure communications systems into platforms for innovation. This is why we should absolutely encourage and engage with smaller companies and start-ups as these are critical for accelerating innovation and technical diversity,” concluded Alberto.

In addition to accelerators, Vodafone is working with innovative companies in other areas of Open RAN, including Lime Microsystems. As part of a UK government funded project to develop an open-source framework and hardware, Lime will develop software-defined radio (SDR) capable of supporting multi-technology and multiple frequencies. When combined with its radio and baseband unit, it will create a blueprint for use by other companies to develop off-the-shelf or bespoke radio solutions.

Vodafone will use its presence at MWC 23 to highlight the company’s commitment to delivering Open RAN solutions through its Málaga silicon R&D centre, and its work with new partners to further enhance the services it delivers to customers. In much the same way Linux is the operating system of choice for smaller companies developing Apps, Open RAN will provide access to the relatively untapped world of mobile networks.

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