UK opens £1M SONIC Labs to accelerate 5G OpenRAN deployment

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The UK government has announced the launch of two new labs to accelerate the development, testing, and deployment of 5G OpenRAN.

One of the new “SONIC Labs” will be based in London while the other will be in Brighton. The sites will enable various manufacturers to supply components for 5G radio equipment and test them prior to real-world deployments.

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman launched the SONIC Labs at a virtual event this morning. He said:

“I’m thrilled that SONIC Labs is opening its doors to the wealth of telecoms expertise we have in this country to explore new ways of building 5G networks.

Our investment is a crucial element of our strategy to tackle the world’s over-reliance on a small number of telecoms vendors by growing our own cutting-edge solutions at home.

I look forward to seeing how the lab will help deliver the incredible social and economic benefits of new technology for people around the UK.”

OpenRAN helps to diversify the supply chain through enabling smaller vendors to deliver interoperable and standards-based products.

Aside from the competition benefits of driving innovation and reducing costs, OpenRAN also helps operators to avoid the “vendor lock-in” of the large incumbents. If a specific vendor’s equipment is compromised or banned, it will have less of an impact on the overall network.

Many governments are supportive of OpenRAN due to the aforementioned security benefits. Last month, US telecoms regulator FCC announced an OpenRAN showcase that will take place on 29 June, 2021.

“By making information about OpenRAN more readily available and by connecting the various stakeholders invested in this technology, we are making sure companies can continue to innovate and we are encouraging network operators to invest in network security,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting Chairwoman of the FCC, last month.

“If we do these things right, we have an opportunity to build a bigger market for more secure 5G equipment.”

However, few governments have put their weight behind OpenRAN as much as the UK’s.

The disruptive ban of Huawei’s equipment from UK networks over national security concerns is likely to be a leading factor in the British government giving its full backing to the OpenRAN effort to diversify the supply chain.

All of the UK’s operators have used Huawei’s equipment for multiple generations of networks and some had even begun their 5G deployments using the Chinese vendor’s gear prior to the ban. Removal and replacement of the equipment has been costly in both money and time.

The new SONIC Labs will be run by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom and the government’s innovation agency, Digital Catapult.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Chief Executive of Ofcom, said:

“SONIC Labs is an exciting project that gives us the opportunity to explore how new telecoms technology could operate in the UK market.

It’s all about bringing innovation to our communications networks – helping to support fast, secure and reliable connections for the future.

A number of companies are already getting involved and we look forward to more joining too.”

Joe Butler, CTO of Digital Catapult, added:

“In SONIC Labs we are experimenting to make interoperability a reality.

This effort supports our mission to drive UK capability in advanced digital technology and we are grateful to Ofcom for working with us in this partnership and to DCMS for the opportunity to leverage the 5G testbeds we have developed in this effort.”

Vendors including Accelleran, Mavenir, Radisys, Benetel, Phluido, Druid, and Effnet have already joined SONIC Labs.

The government says that it will be working closely with industry, Ofcom, academia, and others to ensure the UK’s mobile infrastructure supports the country’s ambition to “build back better” from the pandemic both socially and economically.

(Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash)

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