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UK government announces high-tech lab to boost 5G diversification strategy

As a central pillar of strategy to build a more secure and innovative 5G supply chain, Sonic Labs test facility opens to explore ways of building 5G networks in a ‘simulated’ real-world environment

Since its decision to ban equipment from so-called ‘at-risk’ suppliers such as Huawei from the infrastructures of communications operators, the UK government has talked a good game in waning more diversity in 5G technology supply, and is now putting its money where its mouth is by funding a new laboratory to speed up the development of 5G communication kit.

In December 2020, as it gave a second reading of the legislation necessary to show how it would mandate the UK’s telecoms operators to uninstall essential technology from high-risk suppliers, the UK government revealed the new partners and strategy for how it would try to diversify the country’s telecoms supply chain and ensure its future resilience.

Months earlier, the UK government announced a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment, making it illegal for UK telcos to purchase Huawei 5G network equipment from the end of 2020. Yet, as soon as it made its decision, the government conceded there would be a price to pay – calculated by the UK’s mobile operators to be running into the billions.

The diversity strategy set out a number of targeted measures revolving around three key pillars: supporting incumbent suppliers, which will continue to be a major part of the UK market and help the UK meet its ambitious digital infrastructure plans; attracting new suppliers into the UK market; and accelerating open-interface and interoperable technologies such as Open RAN.

Backed by £1m in UK government funding, the new Sonic Labs will be based in London and Brighton, and will attempt to enable telecoms equipment manufacturers to examine how their kit behaves in a fully interoperable, technology-neutral mobile network. It will also act as a vehicle to encourage innovative suppliers to enter the UK telecoms supply chain and drive innovation in public networks.

The lab is being run by UK communications regulator Ofcom and digital technology innovation centre Digital Catapult, which has built the facility using existing its infrastructure and capability added to a bespoke Sonic Labs branch as part of Ofcom’s Innovation Lab in Riverside House in London.

Sonic Labs will work with a diverse range of suppliers to explore new open approaches to telecoms networks, including Accelleran, Mavenir, Radisys, Benetel, Phluido, Druid and Effnet.

In addition to being a major pillar of the UK government’s 5G diversification strategy it is also designed to help accelerate Open RAN adoption, which the government said will allow components from different telecoms suppliers to be exchanged or used as replacements at masts that, until now, have been kitted out by a single supplier.

The strategy will aim to build what the UK government hopes will be a more secure and innovative supply chain which is fit for the future, less reliant on a small number of multinational suppliers and more accessible for new market entrants. The lab will also endeavour to bring in multiple providers to supply components for 5G radio equipment.

“I’m thrilled that Sonic Labs is opening its doors to the wealth of telecoms expertise we have in this country to explore new ways of building 5G networks,” said UK digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman.

“Our investment is a crucial element of our strategy to tackle the world’s over-reliance on a small number of telecoms suppliers by growing our own cutting-edge solutions at home. I look forward to seeing how the lab will help deliver the incredible social and economic benefits of new technology for people around the UK.”

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