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UK government launches 5G network building competition

Latest part of UK government’s 5G diversification strategy sees launch of competition to put UK at the cutting edge of developing tech for 5G mobile networks

Making a move that it hopes will fosters new research collaboration between international and homegrown players in the country’s public telecoms networks, the government has launched a £30m competition designed to turn the UK into a leading global destination for developing the next generation of 5G networks.

The scheme is part of the UK government’s diversification strategy that was formulated in December 2020 in the wake of its decision to remove Huawei equipment from national infrastructures.

It revolves around three key pillars: supporting incumbent suppliers, which will continue to be a major part of the UK market, and will help the nation to meet its ambitious digital infrastructure plans; attracting new suppliers into the UK market; and accelerating open-interface and interoperable technologies such as Open RAN.

The Future RAN Competition (FRANC) scheme aims to tackle the world’s over-reliance on a small number of telecoms suppliers by developing what are hoped to be “new, innovative solutions” in the UK. It is hoped this will help to build confidence in the security and resilience of new 5G technology as it delivers incredible social and economic benefits for people and businesses.

FRANC will fund research and development (R&D) projects across the UK to speed up the adoption of Open RAN technology, allowing equipment from multiple suppliers to be used in 5G networks. The government hopes this will also end their current dependence on one company’s technology to function, but it conceded that there are still barriers to Open RAN being used over more traditional mobile network technology.

The scheme’s launch follows the opening of a government-backed £1m high tech lab to help accelerate the adoption of Open RAN technology.

To receive a share of the £30m, the UK government is encouraging technology and telecoms innovators to submit proposals for projects that will help to fast-track the availability of viable Open RAN products and suppliers, as well as create a stronger case for government and business investment in the technology. 

Suggested proposals could include exploring issues around power efficiency, the management of radio wave ‘spectrum’ resource, the availability of advanced software platforms, systems integration and security.

The deadline for applications for the FRANC scheme is 27 August 2021, with winning projects expected to be announced in autumn.

It has also been announced that Simon Blagden, the former non-executive chair of Fujitsu UK, will be the chair of the new Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council, an independent expert body to succeed the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce. The taskforce which was commissioned by the government to provide advice on how to effectively deliver a more competitive and diverse 5G telecoms market, and it submitted its final report in April. 

The UK government has now published its response to the report and outlines how it will adapt the recommendations across four areas, as well as its activity to date. One of the taskforce’s recommendations was to establish a permanent external body to advise on the delivery of the diversification strategy and wider related issues, including potential supply chain issues in other telecoms equipment such as fixed broadband.

The new Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council will set out to fulfil those roles. The taskforce also recommended investment in R&D that addresses key technical barriers to high-performance Open RAN – a challenge that the FRANC competition and the new high tech Sonic lab will take on.

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