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UK government expands investment in 5G and 6G R&D

UK universities awarded £28m to develop next-generation 6G network technology, and an £80m fund will help set up a lab for testing network equipment, as government aims to boost telecoms infrastructure

In July 2022, as part of its ambition to boost competition and innovation in the telecoms supply chain by expanding its UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN) and bolster the country’s status as a global leader in telecoms research, the UK government introduced a scheme for universities to develop 5G and 6G comms services.

Now, in its latest step, research and development (R&D) on 5G and 6G wireless technology and telecoms security is to be ramped up as part of a £110m government investment programme.

The new package will see three top UK universities – University of York, University of Bristol and University of Surrey – receive a share of £28m to team up with major telecoms companies, including Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung, to design and build networks of the future, such as 6G.

The universities will work with world-leading UK academics and industry players to ensure future network technologies, including 6G, are designed in a way that promotes a more diverse and innovative telecoms market, and brings an end to current setups where all equipment within a network must be from a single supplier. 

The programme will also support the roll-out of 5G mobile networks in the UK, the slow pace of which in non-urban areas has attracted criticism, by making it easier for more firms to enter the market.

The package also includes £80m for a UK Telecoms Lab being built in Solihull. Under a new contract the government has signed with the National Physical Laboratory, the lab will act as a secure research facility for mobile network operators, suppliers and academics to research and test the security, resilience and performance of their 5G and, in the future, 6G network technology. The facility will also create dozens of specialised jobs in telecoms and cyber security for the region.

“The technology powering our phone and internet networks is evolving rapidly, and with 6G on the horizon we must stay ahead of the curve,” commented UK digital secretary Michelle Donelan.

“This investment will see top UK universities join forces with industry to develop the nuts and bolts underpinning new networks, create skilled jobs testing the security of the latest telecoms tech, and ensure our plan for a more diverse and innovative 5G market is sustained in the future,” she added.

“The funding will also turbocharge our work to strengthen telecoms supply chains so we are no longer reliant on a handful of companies to develop and maintain our 5G networks.”

Commenting on the latest announcements, Hamish MacLeod, chief executive of Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, said: “Mobile UK welcomes this from the government. International collaboration and investment in research and development of this kind is absolutely essential if the UK is to be a leader in the development of open networks that push for the highest standards of security, innovation and power efficiency.”

The new funding package follows an announcement earlier in December 2022 revealing that the US, Canada and Australia have committed to closer cooperation to diversify telecoms supply chains after each country’s decision to ban technology from so-called high-risk manufacturers being used in national communications infrastructures. As part of this, they signed up to the UK’s principles for developing and deploying equipment based on the Open RAN standard to deliver on promises of a more competitive, innovative and secure telecoms market.

Open RAN is crucial to the UK government’s £250m strategy to end the UK’s reliance on a small number of firms to build and maintain 5G networks. It believes such an approach will help the country to build a more diverse, competitive and secure telecoms supply chain.

Following the launch of a £3.6m competition as part of a world-first R&D project to accelerate the development of Open RAN technology, the UK government has kicked off an R&D partnership with the Republic of Korea which aims to accelerate the deployment of Open RAN and associated technologies. The joint project will focus on the power efficiency of emerging technical equipment, which is one of the main obstacles holding back the roll-out of this new technology.

“It is a great pleasure to launch this UK-ROK Open RAN R&D collaboration which will see Korean and British companies working together to develop innovative solutions to key Open RAN and telecoms challenges,” remarked president Sung Bae Jun of the Korean Institute for Information & Communications Technology Planning & Evaluation.

“I am also pleased to sign a joint DCMS-IITP Terms of Reference which will guide our cooperation and support further UK-ROK exchange.  Both the UK and ROK recognise the importance of initiatives to support telecoms innovation and to support the resilience of telecommunication infrastructure supply chains.”

Read more about 56 and 6G development in the UK

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