The UK Government is opening up a multi-pronged strategy to try to wean the UK’s telecoms operators off their enforced reliance on Nokia and Ericsson as Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment suppliers.
As it does so, it will support Open RAN as one of the chief, but not only, means of achieving its goal of having a more resilient, secure and diverse supplier community for MNOs operating in the UK.
The Government has established a 5G Diversification Strategy that it has initially backed, it says, with £250 million. The aim is to grow the UK’s telecoms supply chain “while ensuring it is resilient to future trends and threats”. There will be support for Nokia and Ericsson too, with the UK Government aware that operators are currently reliant on these providers.
Outlining the need for intervention, a Government strategy document on telecoms supplier diversification said: “Whilst the government welcomes the emergence of new deployment methods based on open-interface standards – such as Open RAN – and their potential to stimulate market growth, we consider it unlikely that these initiatives will meaningfully open up the market in the short to medium term without additional intervention and investment.”
While the Government recognises that the UK market is not large enough to influence global patterns of equipment development, it nevertheless wants to “attract new suppliers into the UK market”, encouraging them to site R&D activity and conduct tests and trials in-country. Allied to this is a goal of “accelerating the development and deployment of open-interface solutions”, which in this context effectively means finding mechanisms to speed up development and adoption of Open RAN.
Scott Bailey, Head of Telecoms Diversification at the DCMS, told a webinar organised by lobby group the Open RAN Policy Coalition, “Open RAN is really the cornerstone for us of a vibrant competitive market in international telecoms.”
That said, he added, “We are relatively technology agnostic. We want to deliver our long term ambitions and see Open RAN as a really promising way to get there but we ultimately want to to stimulate an environment where we can bring together vendors and operators to test new technologies.”
The aim is to establish an “R&D ecosystem to accelerate and pull forward the development of interoperable technologies”. Projects within the ecosystem will fund trials and testbeds for the development and then integration of solutions into ‘live’ networks.
The strategy document said:
“Specifically this ecosystem will include:
- Lab based R&D focused on finding scalable solutions to incorporating interoperable interfaces
- ‘Plugfests’ bringing together operators and suppliers to test and demonstrate equipment in representative networks and that inform final technical specifications
- Open RAN trials across a cluster of locations including rural districts, suburban and dense urban sites, to test and prove the performance of Open RAN networks
- Funding to support the growth and emergence of vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined solutions, based in the UK
- Testbeds and trials that test and demonstrate the effectiveness of open interface deployment models for new 5G capabilities, applications and use cases. These will also include the testing and development of complementary technologies such as AI, Cloud and other forms of network virtualisation.
The Government had already formed a Taskforce, which is advising on overall strategy.
The most recent announcement is the formation of a National Telecoms Lab. According to the UK Government, the Lab ” will serve as a hub for telecoms R&D activity across the UK and deliver a wide range of benefits that will de-risk, enable and accelerate diversification through new market entrants and interoperable deployment methods.”
The idea is that is will be a place where operators and suppliers to match their requirements and specifications. “This facility will also play a major role in setting best practice for open-interface network deployment and deliver an uplift in telecoms skills and specialism in the UK,” the document said.
TMN understands from someone close to the project that it is still very early days for the lab, with a deadline for the business case not due until March 2021.
A further part of its diversification Capability will be the SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC). This is a testbed for existing and emerging suppliers to come together to test and demonstrate interoperable solutions, starting with Open RAN. The SONIC project will be led by the Digital Catapult and Ofcom. The project will leverage existing 5G testbeds in London and Brighton at launch in 2021, and then “evolve over time to create a foundation for broader national testbed and laboratory initiatives”.
SONIC will be live and operational from May 2021, and will evolve over time to create a foundation for broader national testbed and laboratory initiatives.
Support for the new, but keeping the old onside
One aspect of interest is that the Government is clear that Nokia and Ericsson are and will continue to be very important. It wants to keep then onside, but also wants to encourage them to get more involved in UK-based R&D, and to open up their own interfaces.
Bailey, speaking on the webinar said, “The first strand of our thinking is the steps we want to take to support the incumbents. Government decisions on HRV availability mean as a result we are left with two vendors to the UK market. So clearly an important strand of our strategy is ensuring both those vendors can continue to supply into the UK. Also we can work with them to think about what R&D they can do in the UK and how we might align along a roadmap.”
At the same time, Government wants to see potential new suppliers come through. So it has said that it will seek commitments from incumbents that they will open up interfaces to enable interoperability. It will be rather interesting to see how it will formulate its requests. Will it consider these part of the new security mandates it will place on network operators?
It said, “We will seek to embed approaches that will help achieve our long term vision for the sector in a way that recognises the considerable investment that existing suppliers have made in advancing and rolling out network infrastructure. This will involve seeking commitments from the incumbents to open up interfaces that will enable interoperability and ensuring that new market entrants utilise deployment methods that demonstrate the effectiveness of interoperable solutions.”
NEC – NeutrORAN Trial
So who is likely to get involved? Many of them are names well-known to TMN readers.
The government said it “looks forward to working with potential new suppliers” and said it had “engaged extensively” with Samsung, Fujitsu and NEC. It has also “established relationships” with Parallel Wireless and Mavenir.
But it is NEC that is make the most noise in this area. The vendor is working to implement and demonstrate a ‘neutral host’ Open RAN solution across a range of deployment environments, to be known as the NeutrORAN Trial.
This project opens in 2021, is backed by a UK government investment of £1.6m, and forms part of the wider 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme.
The strategy document acknowledges that the UK market represents less than 2% of suppliers’ global mobile revenue – “and so the UK market alone cannot drive or sustain meaningful change across the supply chain.”
That means some yet-to-be defined international partnership and collaboration model might form. It seems more likely that we might see bi-lateral or ad hoc multilateral agreements to share results and trials, rather than something formal accrue.
The UK Government’s Bailey said, “We cant do that [grow Open RAN] without coordinating with like-minded countries. We have had really positive conversations with colleagues in Tokyo, similarly we have bi-lateral engagement with countries in a similar position to the UK. It’s a bit early to say where we see that happening but we do see benefit in seeing that happen. The biggest mistake is to assume that countries acting alone can solve this problem.”
The Open RAN Policy Coalition is not, yet, the venue or convener for this sort of work. Instead, it is focussing on producing recommendations for governments on fostering Open RAN development. It’s Policy document, just published, outlines a variety of investment measures that governments can take, and uses Japan and the UK’s trials programmes as case studies.