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March 2, 2023updated 31 Mar 2023 10:39am

UK government turns to open networks as it bids to fix ‘broken’ telecoms innovation chain

As interest in open RAN booms, the UK hopes to take advantage and build stronger links between industry and academia.

By Matthew Gooding

The UK government wants to build stronger telecoms supply chain centred on open networking systems like open RAN after the head of a body set up to increase diversity in the sector admitted that the innovation chain in the industry is “broken”.

The UK government wants to boost the open networking movement (photo by TPROduction/Shutterstock)

Speaking at Mobile World Congress, Nick Johnson, head of the UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN), said his organisation aims to establish a more joined up approach, connecting industry and academia to develop the next generation of networking equipment and software.

Open RAN has been a big theme at Mobile World Congress, with many major vendors announcing new products and partnerships as the open networking movement gathers pace.

UK telecoms innovation chain ‘broken’

UKTIN was announced last year with a remit of helping telecoms companies with R&D projects and collaborations aimed at developing new and improved technologies for UK mobile and broadband networks. It also offers advice and access to funding.

Johnson told guests at a reception held as part of Mobile World Congress: “There’s been quite a lot of evidence building up over the years that the UK innovation chain – that is, the R&D done by universities and corporations and alignment of that R&D with the objectives of the customer base – is broken.

“People are essentially working on little islands of activity with no guiding principle. The UKTIN’s principle objective is to make sure people are joined up again, and focus on common sense goals for the global customer base.”

How open networks can help

The government’s bid to change this, spearheaded by UKTIN, will focus on the value that can be found in developing open networks – telecoms devices which use standards and protocols that are accessible to all vendors, large and small. This, in theory, offers greater opportunities for collaboration.

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Last year, ministers announced a £250m, Open Networks R&D Fund to accelerate the development and deployment of open interface architectures, such as open RAN, responsibility for which is now newly created Department of Science, Innovation and Technology.

Imran Shafi, the government’s director of digital infrastructure, told delegates: “We’ve got a shared ambition in the UK that a third of our traffic will be over interoperable networks by the end of the decade and that’s something we’re signed up to with mobile operators.

“We want to work closely with vendors new and existing to help advance this agenda, working with our partners from around the world because we know this is not a challenge we can solve alone.

OpenRAN projects prevalent at Mobile World Congress

Open networking was a common topic of conversation at this year’s Mobile World Congress, which drew to a close in Barcelona today.

Many vendors chose to focus on open radio access networks, or open RAN. The radio access network is a key component of 5G and other wireless networks, providing the infrastructure which underpins the network and enables software and devices to communicate with each other.

While the RAN is traditionally provided via proprietary technology from big hardware companies, the open RAN movement seeks to develop a set of open standards that vendors can use as a starting point for their products.

Among the announcements at the conference was a partnership between Qualcomm and Dell, which will see the companies aim to develop a virtualized distributed unit (vDU) solution to accelerate efficient, high-capacity deployments of next-generation 5G networks.

By combining Dell PowerEdge servers purpose-built for open telecom networks and the edge with Qualcomm’s X100 5G RAN Accelerator Card, the businesses say they aim to provide a high-performing, cost-effective and energy-efficient solution for OEMs and operators deploying virtualized and Open RAN solutions. 

“This extended collaboration signals a significant next step in the evolution and commercialisation of full-scale open and virtualized 5G networks,” said Durga Malladi, senior vice president and general manager, cellular modems and infrastructure, Qualcomm Technologies. “Through working with Dell, we will help accelerate next generation 5G mobile infrastructure global adoption, and enable operators to meet performance demands at the edge and provide enhanced user experiences.”

Dennis Hoffman, senior vice president and general manager at Dell Technologies telecom systems business, added: “Our joint vDU platform will give network operators an integrated but open way to realize the full potential of open RAN technologies.”

Read more: Hyperscalers take on telcos with cloud native 5G

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