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November 1, 2023
UK tech incubator Digital Catapult has opened another Open RAN test site in an effort to prove it can cope with the bright lights of the big city.
Launched in partnership with regulator Ofcom, towerco Cellnex, and consultancy Capgemini, this new site is based in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, and is operated by Digital Catapult’s Sonic Labs (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) programme.
Vendors will have an opportunity to put products through their paces under conditions that closely mirror commercial outdoor 5G standalone (SA) deployments, and replicate both private and public networking environments.
The site offers both outdoor macro coverage and small cell deployment to create a test network with overlapping coverage, enabling kit of varying sizes, power and capabilities, and network architectures to be tested. It means that in addition to overall performance, companies will be able to test handover, mobility and interference management.
“Real world testing is an essential part of enabling early stage telecoms products to make the journey to robust and performant propositions. This is particularly important in the case of Open RAN and supports a diverse supply chain of innovative, market ready products,” said Joe Butler, CTO of Digital Catapult, in a statement. “This groundbreaking outdoor field site is a fantastic addition to Sonic Labs’ existing state-of-the-art facilities, enabling real-world testing alongside our lab testing capabilities.”
Cellnex will handle infrastructure provision, edge hosting and transmission services at the new site, while Capgemini – which joined Sonic Labs last November – is supplying the Open RAN solution and system integration capabilities. Ofcom has granted a specialist R&D operating licence for a chunk of test spectrum that should be sufficient to test 5G at high throughput.
“This is an exciting moment for the Sonic Labs project – providing an opportunity to really put Open RAN technology through its paces and test how it operates in a dense urban environment. It will be an important step forward for the companies involved on their journey to prepare their services and technology for the commercial rollout,” said Lindsey Fussell, group director of networks and communications at Ofcom.
Achieving feature and performance parity with ‘traditional’ networking tech is one of the big milestones that Open RAN needs to reach if it is ever going to become a credible option for macro deployments.
It means that rigorous testing is required, and few environments offer a sterner challenge than dense, urban ones.
It was quite telling in September – when the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) announced the winners of its £88 million Open Networks Ecosystem (ONE) competition – that many of the 19 successful projects were concerned with testing Open RAN solutions in high demand density (HDD) environments.
One of these, the NAVIGATE project, will see NEC and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) provider Freshwave build a neutral host, Open RAN test network in the City of London. The project has a budget of £7.42 million, with £3.32 million courtesy of DSIT.
There appears to be considerable overlap, not just among these 19 competition winners but with what Sonic Labs is doing in Hammersmith and Fulham too.
On the one hand, it could be argued that this is symptomatic of malcoordination on the part of government, and risks resulting in a mish-mash of ultimately substandard solutions. On the other hand though, it could indicate that the scale of the challenge is such that it is necessary to cast the net wide in pursuit of a worthy objective.
The truth will – in all likelihood – be determined by the outcomes of all this effort and expense.
Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.
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