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UK government pumps £110m into 5G and 6G research

The investment includes a new network testing centre, funding for universities to build out 6G technology and development of Open RAN standards.

By Ryan Morrison

A telecom research and development package designed to speed up 5G and accelerate the pace of 6G research has been unveiled by the UK government, including £110m for new telecom labs, networking technology and global partnerships. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) also announced an agreement with South Korea to develop Open RAN networking standards for white box hardware.

It is hoped the new investment will diversify the networking technology used in the UK’s mobile sector and speed up 5G rollout. (Photo by xfilephotos/Shutterstock)

As part of the investment, £80m will be used to set up a new state-of-the-art telecom lab in the West Midlands where new networking equipment can be tested. Run by the National Physical Laboratory, the secure facility can be used by network operators, suppliers, and academics to test the security and resilience of 5 and 6G equipment.

Diversification of the UK’s networking supply chain is one of the key aims of this investment, according to DCMS, with a push to create more options and companies that can provide core networking equipment and a push for new global standards.

This is, in part, a response to national security concerns around the use of technology from Chinese companies such as Huawei. Network operators have been ordered to remove Huawei equipment from core networks by the end of next year, and completely by 2027.

“The funding will also turbocharge our work to strengthen telecoms supply chains so we are no longer reliant on a handful of companies to develop and maintain our 5G networks,” digital secretary Michelle Donelan said in a statement on the announcement.

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At the same time, the government is also working with companies including Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung to develop the next-generation 6G network with a £28m grant split between the University of York, University of Bristol and the University of Surrey. This is on top of the tens of millions each of those companies plan to invest in the UK to create their own research and development hubs for next-generation mobile technology.

The new funding announcement comes off the back of Ericsson confirming it will be spending “tens of millions” on a new 6G R&D project that it says will define the future of mobile networking in the UK and set new global standards. The ten-year investment will see a new research unit set up in the UK employing 20 dedicated researchers and fund PhD students to investigate what 6G should look like and how it should work.

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They will look at network resilience and security to ensure any future infrastructure has cybersecurity built in from the start, as well as the use of AI and energy efficiency. These, says Ericsson are “considered to be key building blocks of the world’s future digital infrastructure for society, industries and consumers”.

The UK has also entered a new research and development partnership with the Republic of Korea focused on deploying Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN), a standardisation concept based on interoperability, including unified interconnection standards for hardware that allows for easier integration into national infrastructure regardless of supplier.

The £3m joint project includes a £1.2m investment from the UK government and will focus on the power efficiency of emerging equipment, which is said to be one of the major obstacles holding back the rollout of Open RAN solutions.

A government spokesperson said this technology is a central part of the £250m strategy designed to end the reliance on a small number of companies currently used to build and maintain 5G networks which “will help the country to build a more diverse, competitive and secure telecoms supply chain”.

The partnership will make it easier for UK and South Korean companies to collaborate and share findings surrounding Open RAN tools, develop new products and bring them to the market more quickly in both countries than would otherwise be possible.

The goal, according to DCMS, is that by the end of the collaboration the power efficiency of Open RAN solutions will be closer to the benchmark set by the industry leaders today.

It also follows a new agreement between the UK, US, Canada and Australia to work more closely on diversifying the telecoms supply chain, including on the development and deployment of Open RAN equipment. The aim is to have 35% of mobile network traffic pass through Open RAN-enabled equipment by the end of the decade.

Read more: Is the telecoms industry really in freefall?

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