UK government offers £80 million for Open RAN bright ideas

The UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has announced a competition to award up to £80 million of funding for projects around Open RAN.

Andrew Wooden

March 15, 2023

5 Min Read
UK government offers £80 million for Open RAN bright ideas

The UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has announced a competition to award up to £80 million of funding for projects around Open RAN.

This pot of cash is part of the UK Open Networks Research and Development Fund, which is an even larger £250 million warchest. It will be given out to those working on hardware or software that enables ‘enhanced development and adoption of open and interoperable technology; as well as the opportunity to apply for funding for demonstrations of Open RAN technologies in high demand density environments.’

It’s throwing money at Open RAN development, essentially, and the funding push can be seen in context with the government’s drive to ‘remove high risk vendors from telecoms networks’. They dance around it in these announcements, but they are referring to the Huawei ban.

The competition aims to ‘tackle barriers to the adoption of open mobile networks’ in three areas which it defines as:

High Demand Density (HDD) Use Cases/Demonstrations: HDD sites such as urban areas, airports, sports venues and major public events represent the most challenging environments for the technical performance of mobile networks. We’re looking to fund projects which seek to develop, demonstrate and test approaches for optimising mobile network performance in High Demand Density environments.

RIC and other RAN Software Automation: We’re interested in projects which seek to explore how the openness and interoperability of Open RAN software, including Near-Real-Time or Real-Time RIC technologies and apps, could be improved.

Processors, RF, and other RAN Hardware: We’re interested in projects looking to accelerate the development of performant open interface RAN hardware, such as analogue RF and antenna components, RF chips, and baseband processing solutions to address the disparity in features, performance, and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) between traditional and open solutions.

The competition is open from today and will close on 23 May. In terms of who is eligible, we are told: “The investment will be delivered primarily in the form of competed grants to consortia of capable businesses, academic institutions, and public sector organisations who will deliver R&D projects to suit the objectives of the Fund.”

Another entity putting its shoulder behind the development and adoption of Open RAN is the Telecoms Infra Project, which was once a side project of Meta but now has evolved into a kind of industry association focussed on emerging telecoms technology.

“The UK government is heavily invested in supporting a more open, diverse, and crucially, innovative ecosystem of telecoms vendors,” said Kristian Toivo, Executive Director of TIP. “As it has correctly pointed out, blueprints to develop, demonstrate and test approaches that are commercially ready for operators to deploy is vital to the success of open networks. TIP has been working with operators to create a certification and badging framework to validate market-ready solutions.

“The UK is looking to become a leader in telecoms diversification, and incubate home-grown innovations, particularly for the RIC, that will bring about new use cases that ultimately benefit consumers and businesses. TIP has used previous UK funding to accelerate the testing of interoperable RAN solutions, and this funding is another important step towards the open goal.”

As well as providing a benefit to innovation and competition, Open RAN is sometimes presented almost as the next technological phase for mobile telecoms infrastructure. Maybe there will be turn out to be benefits over using a single vendor in a technical sense as it matures, but motivations by governments to see it take off have always seemed more about geopolitics, especially in the US.

Without being privy to the inner sanctums of the security services, it’s hard to know for sure how much of the security threats cited to justify the banning of Huawei from 5G networks are legitimate, but the guiding star of them is that the CCP could at any time dip into Huawei’s data or otherwise do something dastardly. But as seems to be a hot topic in German halls of power at the moment, that does leave you with a problem in some areas since Huawei has been very busy over the years providing lots of the kit that build Western networks.

One solution to this would be to just use Nokia and Ericsson for everything, but the problem there is that it seems politicians don’t fancy the sound of that either as it would be a duopoly. Hence the enthusiasm to make it rain for any entity that can make it easier for firms like Samsung, NEC and Intel to climb into the tent.

It seems less obvious why this is necessarily better from an operator’s point of view, who presumably just wants its towers built as easily and cheaply as possible, though there are benefits to not being overly exposed to any one firm in a supply chain. But regardless even those who have got fervently behind it such as Deutsche Telekom seem to have discovered the green pastures of a plug and play type multi-vendor future may be a little trickier to implement than some anticipated, as Light Reading noted in December last year.

For the UK government’s part, the plan seems to be about punching through these complications quicker by dumping bags of taxpayer wedge onto the heads of anyone who might have any bright ideas on how to get things moving – the success of which we will have to wait patiently to judge, but judging by how in the weeds its got with this list of aims it seems to have done it’s homework at least.


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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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