It began with elements in the British government raising concerns about the supply chain for the country’s expanding 5G infrastructure. Specifically, there was anxiety around international vendors that could be considered high risk.
Then politics and practicalities aligned and it was decided that reliance on these vendors needed to be reduced by diversifying the UK’s 5G supply chain. Initiatives would be set up to create a more competitive supply base to unlock the full potential of 5G and give the UK telecoms sector a major boost.
Now the British government is encouraging UK-based vendors to help build a disaggregated, vendor-neutral Open RAN (O-RAN) ecosystem that will accelerate the roll out of 5G architectures – both public and private – and pave the way for 6G services. But along the way, there are some key technical and logistical challenges to address.
Achieving efficiency and scale
On the technical side, enhancing spectral efficiency, improving power efficiency, reducing footprint and minimizing latency are all crucial. The best way to achieve these goals is to encourage innovation and collaboration. That’s why the UK government’s Department of Culture Media and Sport has created the Future RAN competition (FRANC). FRANC’s objectives are to:
- Accelerate the development of high-performance 5G Open RAN solutions that meet UK dense urban requirements by 2025
- Attract new 5G RAN suppliers to conduct R&D in the UK, and foster professional collaborations between potential new entrants into the UK’s public network
- Contribute to the delivery of the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy’s objectives of disaggregated supply chains, open interfaces by default, and security being a priority in network deployment.
Building tomorrow’s O-RAN today
As the leader of a consortium of academic and commercial partners, our team at ADVA put together a bid that succeeded in securing funding from FRANC for a two-year project. Our project, UK 5G DU-Volution, is an R&D initiative that focuses on the most complex part of the mobile RAN network, the distributed unit (DU). Implementation of the DU in the RAN is, in terms of power, footprint and cost, currently not up to scratch, so we set up our project to enhance many of the performance aspects of the DU.
To build the new, more efficient DU, we knew we needed partners with experience and expertise. For UK 5G DU-Volution, our partners include BT and The University of York. We’re also getting project management and guidance from the Scotland 5G Centre, and key to the project are the UK-based software companies AccelerComm and CommAgilty.
We’ll be building a DU with off-the-shelf servers and radios, using equipment commercially available today.For the first six months, we’ll be building a DU with off-the-shelf servers and radios, using equipment commercially available today. We’ll then rebase this in a way that also uses some ADVA equipment. We’ll also spend time getting the right test equipment and software mechanisms in place to stitch the equipment together into a viable DU shelf. After that, we’ll be putting the solution into the live mobile network to conduct field trials.
The second phase will see us completely move away from existing O-RAN mechanisms. At the moment, a lot of O-RAN is based on Intel flexRAN, so the second half of the project will begin to move away from that software architecture and bring in a home-brewed version built with third-party equipment, again leveraging some of our own hardware.
I mentioned that politics and practicalities align where the UK’s 5G infrastructure is concerned, and there’s another strand to that beyond diversification of the supply chain. It concerns what the UK government calls its Leveling Up agenda. The plan, in broad terms, is to regenerate parts of the country that have historically suffered from under-investment. Part of the strategy is to invest heavily in R&D so that the benefits of economic growth are less concentrated around London and the southeast of the country and instead spread over a much wider geographical area.
Many UK labs built for O-RAN are in the south of the UK, so with ADVA based in York we were well placed to help grow the supply chain across the north of the country. By partnering with academic institutions like The University of York, we’re stimulating the production of graduates with expertise in O-RAN who can put together system integration platforms.
There are also many UK startups in the O-RAN space – historically undervalued and under-recognized – so by identifying and working alongside some of these UK-based vendors for our UK 5G DU-volution project, we’re also opening the door to new innovation.
We’re just starting to build this more diverse supply chain of skilled people and innovative products in the O-RAN space, but we’re sure that our UK 5G DU-volution project will be key to the future for O-RAN and next-generation mobile networks in the UK.