Digital Catapult spins up ‘real-world environment’ Open RAN facility

UK tech incubator Digital Catapult is inviting firms to tinker with Open RAN applications at its outdoor SONIC (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) Labs.

Andrew Wooden

April 25, 2024

3 Min Read

SONIC is described as an initiative set up to advance Open RAN technology. The first batch of firms have now been invited to use the outdoor testing site in West London to ‘explore the potential value of Open RAN in a real-world environment.’

Digital Catapult’s SONIC Labs programme is funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and is supposed to determine the practical viability and performance of Open RAN. The next phase of the programme will assess how well Open RAN works in practical outdoor settings, the outdoor facility designed to mimic the conditions faced by mobile network operators.

Accelleran, G REIGNS, LIONS, VVDN, and Pegatron will be using the outdoor facility, while ALPHA Networks will primarily use the SONIC Labs indoor facility located in Digital Catapult’s London headquarters. Over the course of the programme, participants will ‘measure key performance indicators to improve Open RAN’s commercial viability.’

Digital Catapult says testing Open RAN outdoors poses numerous challenges such as weather conditions, background noise, coverage footprint, signal strength, and regulatory hurdles like council restrictions and spectrum licences. Setting up shop at the SONIC Labs programme is supposed to make it easier for firms looking to trial some sort of Open Ran related tech in the wild.

“Success of this new phase of the SONIC Labs programme will be driven in part by granting access to both our outdoor and indoor facilities to the new cohort of vendors, as well as offering technical support and opportunities for collaboration with industry,” said Dritan Khaleshi, Co-Director of SONIC Labs at Digital Catapult. “We will also continue to connect vendors with the wider telecommunications ecosystem to present new opportunities for investment and collaboration, as a significant contribution to the global charge in accelerating Open RAN innovation.”

Lindsey Fussell, Group Director Networks and Communications at Ofcom added: “The expansion of SONIC Labs to outdoor testing marks the start of an exciting phase for this innovative project. This is an important opportunity for the companies involved to test their products in a real world, outdoor environment – which includes managing the many challenges that come with operating a network outdoors. We’re looking forward to working with this latest group of companies, as the project continues to develop insights that can help shape the telecoms networks of the future.”

The wider Sonic Labs project was announced in June 2021 with the mission statement of giving Open RAN R&D a boost, to the tune of £1 million. As we pointed out at the time, compared to the vast sums of money the big kit vendors put into researching telecoms technology, it’s a pretty small amount.

Regardless, public funding for programmes like this is one of the ways government support for Open RAN manifests itself. With the project described as ‘enabling Digital Catapult to pave the way for future advancements in global telecommunications infrastructure,’ it certainly has lofty ambitions.

But an outdoor lab is still a lab, and while technological trials are one side of the coin, the way Open RAN evolves in the future will be just as defined by the commercial and practical needs and preferences of the operators who buy the kit. While there is lots of stated support for Open RAN, it remains to be seen the extent to which we arrive at the utopian vision of a whole new ecosystem of firms emerging from the test labs and working in unison to build networks. For now at least, a lot of the big deals which invoke the term Open RAN still largely seem to be leaning on the existing big kit vendors.

About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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