LONDON - Vodafone is testing technology in Europe that could break the stranglehold on telecom equipment enjoyed by Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei.
The world's second largest mobile network provider said Monday that it would test Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRAN) in Britain, part of an effort to increase the number of companies that sell telecom network equipment.
OpenRAN, developed within industry association Telecom Infra Project (TIP), standardizes the design and functionality of the infrastructure, masts and antennae used by mobile network operators.
The technology could encourage upstarts to challenge incumbents Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, and result in more choice for the likes of Verizon, CNN parent company AT&T and Vodafone when it comes to telecoms gear.
"The global supply of telecom network equipment has become concentrated in a small handful of companies," Vodafone said in a statement, adding that more more suppliers would improve flexibility and innovation.
An open alternative
The number of equipment suppliers has dwindled in recent decades, leaving operators beholden to a small number of very large vendors.
OpenRAN could change this over time, introducing more competition and driving down prices for telecom companies, which are facing the roll out of costly 5G technology. By standardizing hardware, the platform should allow new vendors to compete on software.
The new technology, which Vodafone has also deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, will provide 2G, 3G and 4G services for now, "with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future," Vodafone said.
One of the major equipment suppliers, China's Huawei, is the target of a US campaign that seeks to discourage mobile network operators from using its equipment on national security grounds.
Huawei denies that its products pose a risk, but some countries have sought to limit use of its equipment and others are looking into the issue. The conflict has meant tough choices for mobile operators building 5G networks.
Still, OpenRAN represents a tiny share of the telecoms equipment market and this is unlikely to change considerably in the near future, said Julian Bright, a senior analyst at Ovum.
"It's hard to see 5G as an inflection point where suddenly OpenRAN is going to gain significant market share," he told CNN Business.
Telecom operators are already embarking on vendor selections for 5G and the tendency is to procure the bulk of their 5G equipment supply from existing suppliers, Bright said.
But Paul Triolo, global technology policy director at Eurasia Group, said that it would take a decade to roll 5G out on a standalone basis, by which time OpenRAN may be positioned to play a bigger role.
Vodafone is seeking to "actively expand" its vendor ecosystem, CEO Nick Read said in a statement.
The company has already started working with a number of new vendors supplying OpenRAN technology, including US companies Parallel Wireless and Mavenir, and UK-based Lime Microsystems.
"OpenRAN improves the network economics enabling us to reach more people in rural communities and that supports our goal to build digital societies in which no-one is left behind," Read said.
More than 100 possible locations across the United Kingdom had been identified for OpenRAN trials, a Vodafone spokesperson told CNN Business. This list would be narrowed further to 55.
By testing the technology in a market as big as the United Kingdom, Vodafone could help upstarts to attract financing and eventually scale to rival existing vendors, said Usman Ghazi, an analyst at Berenberg.
The UK trials are Vodafone's first in a developed market.