BT, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), and Vodafone are just some of the big telco names that have won a share of UK government funding for Open RAN research.

Nick Wood

September 15, 2023

4 Min Read
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BT, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), and Vodafone are just some of the big telco names that have won a share of UK government funding for Open RAN research.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) launched its Open Networks Ecosystem (ONE) competition back in March, and after careful consideration it has chosen 19 worthy winners that will receive their share of the £88 million prize pot.

The successful entries are all research projects pitched by groups comprising various combinations of operators, vendors, software developers, chip makers and academic researchers. Based all over the country, focus areas range from neutral host networks, energy efficiency, private networking, automation and security.

“Whether you’re in a busy city centre or a rural village, a fast and reliable mobile connection is vital to staying in touch, accessing services and doing business. In order to secure that, we need to embrace a diverse and secure range of technology that will underpin the network,” said Sir John Whittingdale, the UK’s minister for data and digital infrastructure.

“The projects we’re backing today with £88 million in government research and development investment will use innovative Open RAN solutions to make our mobile networks more adaptable and resilient, with future-proofed technology to support bringing lightning-fast connections across the country for many years to come.”

By far the most recurrent theme concerns high demand density (HDD) environments. Several successful projects aim to get to grips with arguably the biggest area of concern regarding Open RAN technology, which is whether it can match or exceed the performance of traditional RAN – in terms of capacity, cost, reliability, and energy consumption – in high-footfall areas.

For example, the NAVIGATE project – pitched by NEC and infrastructure-as-a-service provider Freshwave – received £3.32 million to design, deploy, test and validate Open RAN 5G networks in the City of London. They want to see whether the tech is technically and operationally viable, and demonstrably more cost-effective and energy efficient compared to legacy RAN.

Similarly, VMO2 is the technical partner of a consortium that secured £1.14 million to develop a portable Open RAN cell on wheels (CoW) that can provide coverage at festivals and other high-traffic events.

“DSIT’s recognition of our solution’s potential to enhance mobile network performance in high demand density environments, such as music festivals and major events, is truly encouraging,” said Dr David Owens, head of technical trial at VMO2, in a statement. “Our goal is to ensure high-quality video transmission even in the most crowded spaces, thereby advancing the adoption of Open RAN technology in the UK and enhancing the mobile network experience for all.”

Not all of them are about dense, urban environments, of course. The Dorset Open Network Ecosystem (DONE) – a project that counts ARM, Dorset Council, Vodafone, and altnet Wildanet among its participants – has received £3.62 million to help them further define the blueprint for rural Open RAN deployments to ensure they are cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly.

Meanwhile, BT is involved with a number of successful entries, not the least of which is ARIANE (accelerating RAN intelligence across network ecosystems). This project, which has been given more than £6 million, aims to test the effects on Open RAN performance of multiple apps running individually and concurrently in a multi-RAN intelligent controller (RIC) environment. This particular group also includes Amdocs, VMWare, and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), among others.

“The RAN intelligence arena has expanded massively in terms of new vendor-led AI/ML based applications, and operators taking the opportunity to test out the performance and optimisation effects on RAN networks. However, the industry needs a marketplace of certified solutions as well as furthering of Open RAN standards. TIP is excited to see the UK government take a leadership stance in this domain,” said a statement from TIP’s global head of engagement, Vishal Mathur.

“The RIC promises the flexibility to automate network configuration to optimise the power and spectral efficiency of the RAN at the same time as serving the needs of a range of end users with differing service requirements,” added Maria Cuevas, BT’s networks research director. “By demonstrating the concurrent operation of multiple control algorithms (xApps/rApps) from different suppliers, ARIANE will enhance the knowledge and confidence of participants in the RAN ecosystem to drive innovation in this area.”

The 19 winning projects will be funded up until March 2025, by which time the industry will have a better idea of whether Open RAN can truly deliver on its promise.


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

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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