RAN Virtualization (NFV)

TIM will deploy commercial vRAN in Italy

After successful pilot in Sicily, Italian mobile operator aims to steal a march on rivals with more flexible, programmable network from this year

Following trials earlier this year, and a pilot in Sicily, Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM) plans to deploy virtualized RAN in other parts of Italy this year.

While many operators have engaged in R&D and limited trials of vRAN, for most, virtualization plans are focused, in the near term, on other parts of the network such as the packet core or CPE. However, cheerleaders like China Mobile, and even former skeptics like Verizon, are increasingly interested in introducing elements of vRAN to their existing networks to increase resource flexibility and reduce the cost of expanding capacity and coverage. In many cases, this will start in a discrete part of the RAN, such as a small cell layer or an in-building network.

TIM says its first intelligent Cloud-RAN deployment, made in Sicilian capital Palermo last month, has seen “great results” in terms of coverage and performance. The operator’s head of engineering and labs, Gabriela Styf Sjoman, told Mobile Europe that the RAN “needs to be virtualized, because that’s when we really achieve dynamic allocation, and fully automated distribution of resources. The customer experience and financial benefits are also much more attractive.” Currently, she says, up to 70% of contiguous capacity can be unused in a 24-hour period.

She is aiming for a “virtualized, orchestrated, programmable and abstract” RAN which can provision new services and users in minutes, calling up new functions and applications – and pulling them down – as required, and reducing the overall number of network elements.

The roll-out follows TIM’s announcement in February that it was the first operator in Europe to test vRAN successfully, looking to enhance its current network and prepare for 5G. It used a solution from US-based Altiostar, which was tested in the operator’s Turin labs and then in Palermo.

The use of Ethernet rather than fiber for fronthaul is Altiostar’s big differentiator, and has won the US company trials with five major carriers, as well as $120m in funding, with Cisco among the backers. This approach significantly reduces the cost and complexity of deploying vRAN.

TIM also defined a self-optimizing network (SON) architecture to automate configuration of the network. “TIM verified with this first phase of lab trial the real benefits of vRAN architecture,” said Styf Sjoman at the time. “Mobile network evolution calls for innovation speed to cope with exponential traffic growth. TIM wants to maintain its leadership in 4G and be prepared for 5G. vRAN is a key element to assure effective evolution of our wireless network, delivering top performances, maximum efficiency and quick delivery of new features”.

Mobile Europe will publish a full interview with Gabriela Styf Sjoma in its August/September edition.

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