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UK government announces open networks ecosystem competition

Open Networks Ecosystem Competition to form next phase of UK government’s £250m 5G telecoms supply chain diversification strategy and develop products for enhanced development and adoption of open and interoperable technology

Since its 2020 decision to ban equipment from so-called “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei from the infrastructure of communications operators, the UK government has embarked on a number of initiatives designed to deliver more diversity in open network communications solutions.

These include working with alternative suppliers and funding a new laboratory to speed up the development of 5G communications kit. In the latest move, the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) is inviting applications for up to £80m of funding to support the development of such technology.

The Open Networks Ecosystem Competition will form the next phase of the UK Open Networks Research and Development (R&D) Fund, which was set up to deliver on its £250m 5G telecoms supply chain diversification strategy through a range of telecoms R&D projects.

The diversity strategy has 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 digital infrastructure plans; attracting new suppliers to the UK market; and accelerating open-interface and interoperable technologies such as open radio access networks (Open RAN). Successful projects will run until the end of March 2025.

The government’s diversification strategy was backed by £250m to invest in the Open Networks R&D Fund, which will run until April 2025. The Open Networks R&D Fund will finance targeted activity, based in the UK, to support three objectives.

First is to accelerate the development of open networking technology from its infancy to commercial viability. Second is to incentivise and reduce the risks of deploying open networks technology in the UK at pace, to encourage network operators to accelerate its adoption and deployment. And third is to develop an internationally recognised UK telecoms ecosystem, to position the UK as a leading market for research in open network technologies.

The government is currently undertaking a number of interventions to build on the progress of existing projects in flight from the Open Networks R&D Fund, such as the Future RAN Competition (FRANC), the Future Open Networks Research Challenge, as well as bodies such as SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC Labs), the UK Telecoms Innovation Network and the UK Telecoms Lab.

DSIT is now offering applicants the opportunity to apply for funding to develop a range of software and hardware products that will enable enhanced development and adoption of open and interoperable technology, as well as the opportunity to apply for funding for demonstrations of Open RAN technologies in high-demand-density environments for mobile networks.

Investment will be delivered primarily in the form of completed grants to consortia of capable businesses, academic institutions and public sector organisations, which will deliver R&D projects to suit the objectives of the fund.

The competition aims to tackle barriers to the adoption of open mobile networks in three key challenge areas.

First is in high-demand-density use cases and demonstrations in sites such as urban areas, airports, sports venues and major public events, which are said to represent the most challenging environments for the technical performance of mobile networks. DSIT is looking to fund projects that seek to develop, demonstrate and test approaches for optimising mobile network performance.

Second, DSIT is interested in RAN intelligent controller (RIC) and other RAN software automation projects which seek to explore how the openness and interoperability of Open RAN software, including near-real-time or real-time RIC technologies and apps, could be improved.

Third, the funding areas will cover projects looking to accelerate the development of performant open interface RAN hardware, such as analogue RF and antenna components, RF chips, and baseband processing solutions to address the disparity in features, performance, and total cost of ownership (TCO) between traditional and open solutions.

Effective immediately, the competition will run for 10 weeks. The competition is open to applications from UK-based organisations. A briefing event for this competition will be held on 27 March 2023. See here for more information and registration.

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