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5G firms tune up for Sonic open networking scheme

Project offers the opportunity to shape what the UK’s 5G supply chains of the future could look like

In the latest of the recent flurry of activity to develop technology for 5G communications networks based on open standards, UK advanced digital technology innovation centre Digital Catapult has revealed that eight 5G technology providers have joined the SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (Sonic) to test interoperability and integration of open networking systems.

Sonic was first announced in November as part of the UK government’s 5G Diversification Strategy, and is a joint activity between Digital Catapult and UK communications regulator Ofcom to create a platform for existing and emerging suppliers to test interoperability and integration of open and software-centric networking technology, starting with Open RAN (O-RAN).

This has been a pressing issue for the government following its decision in July 2020 to commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure by 2027, and late last year the government set out its 5G supply chain diversification strategy designed to build a resilient, open and sustainable comms tech supply chain.

Sonic is set to be live and operational from May 2021, and will evolve over time to inform the broader national telecoms capability and other large-scale pilots. It is funded by the UK government and Ofcom to help achieve a vision of a more open, competitive and diverse telecoms supply chain.

It will aim to demonstrate and foster a disaggregated network ecosystem in the UK with multiple suppliers for each element in the technology stack. As well as trying to address diversification, Sonic will also help accelerate innovation in telecoms networks with the move to open and software-centric architectures.

Sonic has the ambition of supporting the principle of O-RAN and other open network standards in the UK, developing into a long-term platform by using existing 5G testbed infrastructure as well as existing knowhow for engaging with the broader ecosystem and for building test beds. The project will attempt to enable O-RAN for benefit of the entire UK ecosystem, supporting and feeding back learning and best practice for O-RAN deployments.

Digital Catapult and Ofcom are seeking to understand the readiness of O-RAN for real-world applications, and the suppliers and integrators are seeking to build new products and systems, learning and sharing best practice. The opportunity to experiment with multiple 5G O-RAN deployments through Sonic will enable the investigation of product deployment across multiple architectures and integration models.

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Technology providers that have indicated their commitment to Sonic include Accelleran, Phluido, Effnet, Benetel, Mavenir, Foxconn, NEC and Radisys, and Digital Catapult says there are more to come.

In addition to telecoms system provider, Sonic will supply insights to network providers – including national operators and smaller private and neutral networks. Digital Catapult says this will mean large businesses can explore future deployments such as private and virtual networks, while smaller companies can test the integration potential of their early-stage products.

“Sonic will foster an ecosystem in the UK of large and small telecoms suppliers, with multiple providers for each element in the technology stack,” said Joe Butler, chief technology officer at Digital Catapult. “Providing a neutral environment for testing and demonstration with eight solution providers will surface the opportunities and challenges of interoperability. We will collectively learn what works and what does not in terms of integration, technology and processes.”

Simon Saunders, director of emerging and online technology at Ofcom, added: “With the first solution providers on board and more expected to follow, this is an exciting step in the journey of the Sonic project. Sonic offers a unique opportunity to shape what the UK’s supply chains of the future could look like, and support innovation.

“So, we encourage companies across the telecoms industry to express their interest in participating, as we get set for the project to go live in May.”

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