The UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has setup Future RAN, an open competition that will allocate £30M of R&D funding to projects that support the UK Government’s 5G supply chain diversification strategy.
The department hopes the competition will help to incentivise industry to create new products and services to unlock the full potential of Open RAN.
The department’s diversification strategy had identified R&D as a barrier to entry for new suppliers. The UK Government is looking to invest in the UK’s R&D ecosystem in order to underpin the reforms and initiatives within this strategy.
This strategy was born out of the need to attract more suppliers to the 5G market with the banning of Huawei. The UK Government also advised operators to remove existing equipment produced by Huawei from their networks by the end of 2027.
The Government has already started making investments to shore up the 5G ecosystem in the form of the SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC) and the UK Telecoms Lab (UKTL). The competition will complement these initiatives by providing support to companies developing the technology, and the labs will facilitate the testing of new products and innovations.
The competition has these three stated objectives:
- “Accelerate the development of high-performance 5G Open RAN solutions that meet UK dense urban requirements by 2025.
- “Attract new 5G RAN suppliers to conduct R&D in the UK, and foster professional collaborations between potential new entrants into the UK’s public network.
- “Contribute to the delivery of the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy’s objectives of disaggregated supply chains, open interfaces by default, and security being a priority in network deployment.”
The department has a launch event scheduled for week commencing 12 July, applications close 27 August and the successful applicants will be informed mid-October.
For Australia the lessons are too clear. Twenty years ago we had a diverse set of mobile infrastructure vendors including Ericsson, Nokia, Nortel, Alcatel, Samsung and Lucent. Ten years ago we had Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia, Huawei and ZTE. With the banning of the Chinese vendors and further consolidation in western vendors we are left with an effective 5G duopoly of Nokia and Ericsson.
The cost of interoperability with a multi-vendor strategy is high, generally too high in a market as small as Australia. Over the years we have seen telco operators in Australia adopt two vendor strategies to stimulate competition between vendors but the interoperability cost has always been higher than equipment cost savings delivered. Far easier to run a request for tender every few years to keep an incumbent vendor honest.
Open RAN provides an opportunity for the market to be diversified. Our Government and regulators should be looking at how this can be stimulated and perhaps piggy-back the work being done in the other five eyes nations. The Open RAN standards reduce the risk of interoperability. Funding testing labs is a way to negate the risk and significant cost of interoperability. Perhaps this is an area that our Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications can explore.
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