The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has today set aside £25m as part of their new Future Open Networks Research Challenge (FONRC) fund to help support the development of future 5G and 6G based mobile broadband equipment (focused primarily on O-RAN).
The goal of this fund is to enable academics (universities) and the industry (telecoms firms) to conduct “early-stage research into open and interoperable telecoms solutions“, such as Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) technologies, for use in 5G and future networks such as 6G.
NOTE: The RAN part of a mobile network covers its infrastructure, masts and antennae.
At present, if a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) wants to buy a new network kit then they can usually only choose from a handful of big suppliers (Nokia, Ericsson etc.). The O-RAN approach seeks to standardize the design and functionality of such kit and software, thus increasing the number of companies able to supply them via vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology.
The fund is being complemented by the launch of the new UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN), which is designed to help guide such work by acting as an information and ideas hub. The Digital Catapult, CW (Cambridge Wireless), University of Bristol and West Midlands 5G have today been named as the winners of the competition to set up and oversee the network.
On top of all this, the UK will also invest £1.6m in a joint-funded £3.6m competition with the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to collaborate on a world-first R&D project to accelerate the development of O-RAN technology . Under this scheme, each country will fund a group of several companies to work together to accelerate the development of technical solutions to improve power efficiency in O-RAN networks.
The aforementioned competition is open to applications from consortia with two or more members from relevant industry, academic or public sector organizations, with funding available for activities taking place in the UK. Bids must be submitted by noon on 20th September 2022
Matt Warman MP, Digital Infrastructure Minister, said:
“The seamless connectivity and blistering speeds of 5G and then 6G will power a tech revolution which will enrich people’s lives and fire up productivity across the economy.
It’s why we’re investing millions and partnering with international allies to unleash innovation and develop new ways to make these networks more secure, resilient and less reliant on a handful of suppliers.”
Hamish MacLeod, CEO of Mobile UK, said:
“Mobile UK welcomes today’s announcement. A strong, diverse mobile ecosystem in the UK will be a cornerstone of the country’s future prosperity and well-being.
The measures announced today offer further opportunities to build on the UK’s thriving R&D into advanced telecoms, and enabling operators to access more diversity in the supply chain while enhancing security and innovation.”
The government states that any consortia applying for the FONRC should be led by universities with the participation of at least one large vendor, and can also include mobile network operators and other industrial partners. Proposals for this must be submitted by 3rd October 2022, but consortia can submit an optional expression of interest (EOI) until 12th August 2022 to receive feedback from DCMS on their research ideas.
We should point out that O-RAN technologies, at least in terms of 4G and 5G solutions, are already making good progress in the UK. For example, Vodafone is working to deploy O-RAN technologies to reach a total of 2,500 sites across rural Wales and South West England by the end of 2027. Some areas are already benefitting from this (here).
However, 6G is currently still in its infancy, although the first draft 6G standard could arrive soon, yet most people still anticipate that it’ll be 2030 before we see the first commercial deployments (field trials often begin a couple of years earlier). But big questions remain over the improvements that 6G will bring, due to its focus on moving into ever higher frequency bands that are weaker and much more tedious (here).