Ofcom lifts lid on plan to diversify 5G market

The SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre will be available to both existing and emerging 5G suppliers

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UK communications regulator Ofcom is to work with government innovation agency the Digital Catapult to launch a programme for testing open networking solutions, beginning with open RAN. 

Radio access networks – or RAN – are used to link mobile operators core networks to users’ phones. In an open RAN model, networks typically allow a greater and more diverse selection of vendors, rather than a closed and proprietary infrastructure.

Speaking at the PublicTechnology Live event that last week, Simon Saunders, director of emerging and online technology at Ofcom, told attendees how The SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC) would allow the regulator a greater insight into the evolution of the technology. 

“It’s really a platform for us to take these Lego blocks that sit within this open RAN trend from different vendors, to try plugging them together and seeing if they fit, finding out whether the standards are sufficient for the task, finding out whether vendors are complying with those standards, and finding out what that implies in terms of when and how operators could bring this technology into their own networks.” 

The centre fulfils part of Ofcom’s remit to encourage innovation amongst UK organisations and businesses.

“We actually have a legal duty to pay attention to innovation,” Saunders said. “And we’ve always done that.” 

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He referred to the Communications Act of 2003, which established Ofcom, and which includes the provision that the regulator act: “With regard to the desirability of encouraging investment and innovation.” 

There has been a particular focus on 5G following the release of a government 5G Diversification Strategy in November, prompted in part by the planned removal of all Huawei equipment from UK networks “no later than 2027.” 

Oliver Dowden, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, writes in his foreword, “That decision is the right one, but it also risks leaving us overly reliant on too few suppliers. This 5G Diversification Strategy is a clear and ambitious plan to grow our telecoms supply chain while ensuring it is resilient to future trends and threats.”

Official guidance on the 5G Diversification Strategy outlines a hope that SONIC will, “kickstart the process of diversification and build momentum”. 

Its approach outlines three key aims: to check that existing suppliers are stable; to attract new suppliers to the UK market; and to accelerate the development of solutions. 

“We want to show to innovators in this area that the UK is open for business,” Saunders told event attendees. 

He said that while some of the regulator’s role could be fulfilled by talking to industry partners, by forming opinions and becoming an expert within each field, “there’s nothing for technologists like actually engaging with the technology”.

The centre will launch in early summer, with an advertised live date of May 2021. The official website states it will, “evolve over time to create a foundation for broader national testbed and laboratory initiatives.” 

By encouraging both new and established vendors to participate, Saunders said he hoped there would be more opportunities for, “smaller companies and early-stage innovators to impact on these critical networks”.

With the government’s digital strategies developing so quickly, Saunders acknowledged there was “no lack of challenges”.

“Technology and innovation inevitably come with reasonably rapid change,” he said. “It prompts us to not only try to do regulation in the old ways faster, but also to look at ways of doing regulation that don’t have to keep up.” 


Sam Trendall

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