Vodafone unveils 5G network built on a Raspberry Pi

Vodafone has unveiled a prototype 5G network built on a credit card-sized Raspberry Pi personal computer and an equally small, advanced silicon chipset. Vodafone said the concept will enable small businesses and households to extend 5G coverage and increase capacity according to their needs and to have their very own, affordable, and portable private 5G mobile network.

By combining the power of Vodafone’s extensive pan-European 5G network with the simplicity and versatility of a Raspberry Pi, Vodafone aims to make 5G-based mobile private networks (MPNs) more accessible to the 22m small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Europe. It could also offer households extended coverage, providing an additional fast broadband link at times when many residents are online simultaneously.

An MPN offers businesses an alternative to the public mobile network by providing them with their own private, fast, reliable and ultra-secure network capacity. MPNs are predominantly used by large businesses or organisations with premises that need to connect a variety of devices, machines and autonomous vehicles and robots, such as a major manufacturing plant.

Vodafone is now looking at ways to democratise MPNs and extend their benefits to micro and small business owners, whilst lowering the entry cost and reducing the resources needed to experience new digital services. The 5G network on a Raspberry Pi is also portable and no bigger than a home wi-fi router, so a customer could instantly set up their own, private network in a public place such as a coffee shop, or extend the coverage of the public network to a remote location like a basement.

“We looked at what Raspberry Pi did for computing, in terms of making it more accessible to people of all ages, and we wanted to do the same with 5G,” said Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone’s Director of Network Architecture. “Whilst this is just a prototype, it has the potential to bring new cloud, AI and big data technologies within reach of many of the small businesses we support across Europe. The next step is to take ideas like this to a place where they can be developed and eventually produced. Our door is open to interested vendors.”

The new system combines a Raspberry Pi 4 with a small, 5G-compatible, embeddable software-defined radio (SDR) circuit board, made by Lime Microsystems. This SDR Board can turn any computing platform into a miniature 5G base station. The resulting system can then be used either as part of a dedicated private network, an extension of a larger MPN or connected to Vodafone’s public network like any other base station. The board design is fully compliant to Open Radio Access Network (RAN) standards, which means it can be used with any computing machine capable of running Open RAN compatible software.

The concept was developed at Vodafone’s new European R&D Centre in Málaga, which has a team of engineers dedicated to the advancement of silicon chips to power new Open RAN innovations. These new networks are built on a mix of hardware and software from multiple vendors, rather than today’s single-supplier networks.

Vodafone will be demonstrating the 5G network on a Raspberry Pi at the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, starting Monday 27 February.