Diversifying Telecoms: Open Networks R&D Fund announcement

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has revealed an update as part of its strategy to diversify the 5G telecoms supply chain, and details of how universities and telecoms firms can apply for up to £25 million to research and develop the next generation of 5G and 6G network equipment. 

The Future Open Networks Research Challenge will enable academics and the industry to conduct early-stage research into open and interoperable telecoms solutions, such as Open RAN, for use in 5G and future networks. The Challenge is one of several initiatives as part of the DCMS Open Networks Research and Development Fund, to accelerate the development and deployment of open interface architectures, such as Open RAN.

UK Open Networks R&D Fund Prospectus

DCMS has published a new prospectus that details the £250 million Open Networks R&D Fund 2022-25

Download here

Central to the Open Networks R&D Fund is government's ambition to:

  • accelerate open-interface products and solutions - ensuring they are truly interoperable, performant, and sustainable – to support its long-term vision for a more open and innovative telecoms market.
  • incentivise and derisk accelerated deployment in the UK - to encourage and accelerate network operators to adopt and deploy open network solutions.
  • develop an internationally recognised UK telecoms ecosystem - positioning the UK as a leading global market and focal point for research into open network technology.

Running until March 2025, each funded activity focuses on "different aspects of the technology that underpin open networking and will help the telecoms sector make the transition quickly and securely". DCMS goes on to say that the Open Networks R&D Fund will "support the development of the ecosystem, allowing for room to manoeuvre and continue to seek new options to support businesses and researchers as the market develops."

Further details of the planned activity can be found below. 

Evolving the innovation ecosystem

UKTIN

"A new UK telecoms innovation network will be the central docking point for industry to engage with us and the organisations who form part of the telecoms ecosystem, including industry verticals. It will guide businesses and researchers through the UK R&D ecosystem, including directions for relevant funding and investment opportunities, R&D facilities and testbeds, as well as providing high-level insight on how to engage with the opportunity, fund or facilities. The network stands ready to introduce key partners to the people and organisations who are working with us to help you get the most out of what the UK has to offer." More information on UKTIN here

Coordinate and shape the technical standards

"The UK’s continuous pipeline of innovations will further benefit from coordination and assistance in the development of technical standards. This will be supported by the UK telecoms innovation network to ensure that the specifications and intellectual property generated from our partners goes to inform standards development activities in fora and groups such as 3GPP, ETSI and the O-RAN Alliance. Essentially helping us and your business to monitor the development of the global market to understand whether further steps are necessary to support greater adherence and adoption of industry-driven standards for longer-term sustainability."

Accelerating maturity

FRANC

DCMS Open Networks R&D Fund is already supporting 15 projects through the Future RAN Competition (FRANC) to help accelerate the development of subcomponents and market models for open interface architectures. Its commitment of £36 million "enables a wide range of organisations to focus on developing technical solutions such as radio transmitters, signal processing equipment, power management systems and software to support open interface architectures. The projects are spread across the UK, including in Glasgow, Cardiff, Cambridge, Newcastle, Newport, Slough and Ebbw Vale - building on the existing industrial strength of these regions, while further developing an engineering base with a new set of skills." 

Future Open Networks (FON) Research Challenge

Today's announcement states that the government is "committed to working with key partners to ensure that openness and interoperability are sustained in future communications network architectures." There is investment of up to £25 million through the Future Open Networks Research Challenge to "encourage the UK’s world-class academic researchers and industry to co-create future-facing telecoms technologies that are open and interoperable by default - making the UK an even more attractive place to invest". DCMS sees this funding as enabling a "rich R&D environment from which more patents will be filed by UK-based organisations to continue to support the growth of a stronger domestic telecoms market." The first challenge is a competition for UK/Republic of Korea Open RAN R&D collaboration, worth £1.6 million.

A briefing event for the international Open RAN R&D competition will take place on Wednesday 3 August, 10:00-12:00 - Register here

High demand density environments

The pioneering research and development of open-interface solutions will, government says, be coupled with a detailed understanding of the domestic market for Open RAN systems. DCMS invites industry to work with them to develop a balanced set of UK-specific Open RAN requirements for end-to-end deployments in high-demand density (HDD) environments. This will help DCMS identify key market and technology gaps, focusing on components, services and appropriate suppliers, that it needs to address to support the deployment of Open RAN in HDD environments.

The outcomes from this activity will underpin future investments by government in supporting further solutions development and trials while at the same time providing smaller suppliers with direction for their product development to better target public network requirements in the UK.

Fundamentally, HDD sites represent the most challenging environments for the technical performance of RAN elements and systems. Through this programme of work DCMS wants to ensure that any new open-interface solutions developed are market-ready and tested to meet the needs of stakeholders responsible for building networks, especially mobile network operators and neutral host providers.

International research and development

International R&D

Developing UK-specific requirements will give new and emerging market entrant suppliers greater clarity over the products they must develop to compete in the UK, as defined by their customers, and this greater transparency should make the UK a more appealing market. DCMS aims to maximise this opportunity through international partnerships and collaborative R&D to develop global markets for export and provide an avenue for like-minded partners to contribute to the diversification of the UK’s telecoms supply chain.

The first of these partnerships to be launched is with the Republic of Korea to accelerate the development of power-efficient products and solutions for open interface architectures. DCMS plans to announce additional global partnerships to be announced during the course of the fund. The Department looks forward to engaging with international governments and industry across the world as we develop and implement the measures set out in the Diversification Strategy.

Enabling businesses to integrate the open network components and systems

DCMS is committed to its vision that an "open-interface architecture will unlock the supplier lock-in across today’s market" and goes on to say that the industry will need to manage the introduction of additional ‘touch points’ across the network from a security and resilience perspective and new challenges in system integration.

DCMS plans to announce further investment to enable industry to integrate open-interface solutions from different suppliers to work together beyond the laboratory environment, both technically and commercially, to be deployed within public networks. This will give us an early indication on the viability of deploying and maintaining the operations of open interface architectures against the security and performance requirements for public telecoms providers’ networks and services.

How this will interface with the extensive new security framework as enacted in the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 is left unsaid.

Developing facilities and demonstration capabilities

SONIC

The SmartRAN Open Networks Interoperability Centre (SONIC Labs) is designed to help commercialise open-interface solutions and test their performance. DCMS has committed £16 million to establish SONIC Labs as a commercially-neutral, collaborative environment for open, disaggregated and software-centric network solutions and multi-vendor architectures. It is maintained and operated by Digital Catapult and Ofcom to provide testing services for suppliers and empowers the wider community to demonstrate their equipment to the standards demanded by the network operators. DCMS, Digital Catapult and Ofcom is designing and building this facility for long-term capability with the intention to make a lasting impact.

UKTL

DCMS shares an update on the long-awaited UK Telecoms Lab (UKTL) which is being established to "support and inform UK security and supply chain diversification ambitions". The UKTL will enable both security evaluations of equipment and functional and secure interoperability testing, reducing barriers to the deployment of open-interface solutions. DCMS encourages businesses and researchers to use the UKTL to evaluate the security of telecoms equipment before deployment, and to take advantage of their guidance on mitigation measures where security falls short. We await further details on how public network operators are engaged and involved in what is essentially a test lab for their own networks and future  equipment use. 

Driving adoption

A neutral-host solution for deploying Open RAN technology

Early progress in this space is demonstrated by the commitment by DCMS to work with NEC - one of the leading suppliers of Open RAN equipment - to implement and demonstrate the performance of a ‘neutral host’ Open RAN solution in outdoor rural environments. This project builds on NEC’s recent strategic investments to establish both a Global Open RAN Centre of Excellence and 5G Radio R&D Centre in the UK.

The NeutrORAN project has established a testbed for a multi-operator, neutral host solution in Wales including in Cefn Du and Menai Science Park (M-Sparc). This ‘neutral host’ solution is showcasing a more cost efficient way to deliver capacity and coverage to underserved regions with the potential for the architecture and deployment model to be scalable beyond the UK.

Open RAN trials in high demand dense environments

Alongside NeutrORAN and other industry-led commercial trials and deployments for Open RAN, DCMS will be offering up to £22 million to collaboratively trial open-interface solutions in high demand density environments across the UK (as listed above under "Accelerating Maturity". These real-world trials will look to "utilise the test cases derived from the initial HDD requirements gathering exercise as set out by network operators and other network builders... (to) provide a crucial assessment of market readiness of the open-interface solutions and help analyse the capacity of the systems integration ecosystem in the UK. These technological developments and trials represent an opportunity for the UK to grow presence and influence within the global supply chain itself."


More details on Future Open Networks Research Challenge competition

The Future Open Networks Research Challenge (FONRC) is a £25 million competition which will enable universities to work with large RAN vendors, and other telecoms organisations, to conduct research and development to drive the openness and interoperability of future network architectures.

These technologies will need to be commercially attractive to large vendors, MNOs and Venture Capitalists, and promote diversification in future network architectures. A number of questions have been raised on this competition, a clarification document has since been issued. 

The competition will run until the end of March 2025.

Objectives

The competition aims to:

  1. Conduct research impacting future technology roadmaps with the goal that openness and interoperability are embedded in future network architectures and systems by default.
  2. Contribute to the strengthening of UK influence in Standards Development Organisations (SDOs).
  3. Strengthen the UK telecoms R&D ecosystem and telecoms capability.
  4. Engage with DCMS, UKRI/EPSRC, the UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN), SONIC Labs and the UK Telecommunications Laboratory (UKTL) and other future relevant government initiatives where appropriate, and actively contribute to the UK’s evolving future networks and 6G vision.

Challenge closes (deadline for full proposals): noon 3 October 2022. For full details please head to the competition homepage


More details on UK/Republic of Korea competition

Up to £1.6 million is available to fund a single UK-based consortium, which will collaborate with a ROK-funded consortium in order to:

  • allow UK and ROK companies and research organisations to collaborate on Open RAN R&D and develop new products and solutions for the market
  • accelerate the development of power-efficient technologies, products and solutions for Open RAN systems
  • ​conduct a joint assessment of the overall power budget of open RAN base stations vs traditional base stations, in order to determine the critical items and make sure any progress impacts meaningfully on the consumption (assessment should consider industry standard approaches such as those set by the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance — products and/or solutions developed in the collaboration should match or exceed the performance of those provided by the market by the end of the collaboration)
  • move power efficiency of Open RAN solutions closer to the benchmark set by incumbents by the end of the collaboration

The successful project will run until 31 March 2024, and is a joint-funded £3.6 million competition with the Republic of Korea. 

Deadline for receipt of applications: 20 September 2022 at noon. 


Sophie James

Sophie James

Head of Telecoms and Spectrum Policy, techUK

Manuel R. Marti

Manuel R. Marti

Programme Manager, UK SPF and Satellite, techUK

Julia Ofori-Addo

Julia Ofori-Addo

Programme Assistant, Central Government, Digital Connectivity Forum, Comms Infrastructure, UK SPF, , techUK