Move fast and make noise: SONIC Labs launches in UK

On Thursday 24 June 2021, SONIC Labs was officially launched by Digital Catapult and Ofcom, with support from DCMS.  

Based in London and Brighton, SONIC Labs will enable telecoms equipment manufacturers to examine how their kit behaves in a fully interoperable, technology-neutral mobile network. It also aims to encourage innovative vendors to enter the UK telecoms supply chain and drive innovation in public networks. With backing from government—and a key tenet of the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy—SONIC Labs aims to test the integration, implementability and performance of Open RAN system architecture for 5G.  

The lab is a real-world testing facility, and brings together a set of suppliers, deploying products for the first time in the UK, including Accelleran, Mavenir, Radisys, Benetel, Phluido, Druid and Effnet.  

At the launch event, DCMS, Ofcom and Digital Catapult each set out their objectives, learnings and policy position on SONIC within the wider context of diversifying the UK’s telecoms supply chain and examining the potential of open and disaggregated networks.  

Ofcom’s role: understanding innovative technologies that will impact the UK’s networks 

Simon Saunders, Ofcom’s Director of Emerging & Online Technology, explained that, for the UK’s communications regulator, SONIC Labs is part of Ofcom’s work in bringing innovation into our networks for the future. Ofcom needs to understand new technologies in detail, to help networks in their choosing of products and services.  

Ofcom supports the objectives of the Diversification Strategy, with security, resilience, competition and innovation all combining to boost the diversity and health of the UK telecoms supply chain. Ofcom sees these objectives as being met by using open and interoperable standards for networks.  

Move fast and make noise 

Ofcom’s objectives for setting up the SONIC Labs testing facility include: 

  • Understand standards 
  • Send a signal to attract industry from all over the world to participate in the UK ecosystem – and smooth the path for deployment  
  • Evaluate longer-term technologies 

And to understand and facilitate this as quickly as possible: Ofcom looked to a commercially-neutral location to deploy three Open RAN 5G networks, in three locations, in three months.  

Digital Catapult: introduction to the SONIC Labs facility  

Highlighting the capability of the Labs, Digital Catapult’s CTO Joe Butler explained that the facility has two deployments: indoor public for a large number of users, and outdoor network deployment to test different models for integration and interoperability performance testing. Multiple Open RAN value chains have been established, with mature product offerings. This process will be repeated, and expanded to foster the ecosystem of new vendors and service providers.  

Both DCMS and Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman recognised that Open RAN is yet to develop into a mature and fully developed technology approach, with work to be done before deployment at scale.  

Technically, these challenges with Open RAN were set out by Dritan Kaleshi – Director of 5G Technology at Digital Catapult: 

  • Integration: Multi-vendor RAN, evolving specifications, implementability  
  • Operation: need to grow skills and capabilities for operating multi-vendor RAN systems  
  • Performance: Trade-offs between performance and disaggregated solutions should not be permanent  
  • Security: Understanding from distributed systems, address is through partnering with other initiatives, such as UK Telecoms Lab  

In building and deploying the lab, and through the interoperability testing in the development phase, Digital Catapult have drawn these lessons:

  • Integration: more work was needed than anticipated across TRLs – products integrated for the first time  
  • Interfaces: lack of implementability maturity of specifications  
  • General purpose: only up to a certain point?   
  • Core network and Instrumentation: CU integration with core has been straightforward 

Ofcom plans to publish its findings in the autumn of 2021, and Phase 2 will see the growth of suppliers entering SONIC Labs, extension out to 5G SA, developing use cases and move beyond Open RAN for 5G to include fixed, core, and transport as well as other emerging technologies.  

Panel: Challenges and opportunities associated with deployment and integration of multi-vendor Open RAN chains  

  • Moderator: Evie Ioannidi, Senior Interoperability and R&D Lead - DCMS  
  • Federico Boccardi, Emerging Technology Programme Director - Ofcom  
  • Natasha Tamaskar, VP Business Strategy and Global Marketing - Radisys  
  • Arnaud Polster, VP Sales - Accelleran  
  • Stefano Cantarelli, Chief Marketing Officer - Mavenir  
  • Dritan Kaleshi, Director of 5G Technology - Digital Catapult  

The launch event concluded with a panel discussion, which reflected on the creation of the SONIC Labs and some of the next steps to build on the work so far. Panellists stated that the ecosystem formed in the Labs benefited from all stakeholders ‘speaking the same language’ with regards to interoperability and integration. Shared expertise meant effective collaboration and issue resolution.  

Standardisation, and indeed the UK’s role in standards setting, remains a key issue for government and industry, and one that may require a different approach when thinking about open and disaggregated 5G networks—or even a completely different mindset. Initiatives and programmes need to work together, as well as pooling expertise and knowledge from industry, academia and international partners.  

There is a complexity in deployment, integration and implementation, and network operators need to see volume deployments, rather than general purpose deployments in controlled lab environments. SONIC Labs will not certify testing, rather enable innovation to be “absorbed” by networks, with companies involved in the Labs having developed through the Labs process.  

What’s next for SONIC Labs? Swapping components in the test networks, looking at RAN intelligence and automation, as well as looking at openness beyond the RAN.  

SONIC Labs is a promising start for the UK’s journey on vendor diversification, and the spirit of collaboration and coordination is an encouraging signal for the telecoms market, both here in the UK and globally.  

Find out more about SONIC Labs here. You can also watch the SONIC Labs demos on YouTube.  

Diversifying Telecoms Week 2021

Diversifying Telecoms Week 2021

From 22 to 26 March, techUK members, stakeholders and industry experts came together to explore topics and themes in telecoms diversification, and the future of the UK's networks.

Read all the insights here

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

Archie Breare

Archie Breare

Telecoms Programme Intern, techUK