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Digital Catapult welcomes new suppliers to test 5G Open RAN deployability

Advanced digital technology innovation centre that aims to drive early adoption of emerging technologies by UK businesses offers opportunity for Open RAN companies to test products in a real-world outdoor environment

In a bid to further the cause of open wireless networks in the UK, Digital Catapult has announced that Sonic (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) Labs, an initiative that aims to advance Open RAN technology, will welcome a new group of international companies to its programme, giving them the opportunity to use an outdoor testing site in West London to explore the potential value of Open RAN in a real-world environment.

Digital Catapult is an advanced digital technology innovation centre that aims to drive early adoption of emerging technologies by UK businesses, with a particular focus on how these technologies can promote competition, boost productivity and grow the country’s economy.

Since 2020, it has worked on a number of projects based on 5G technology, such as one with Formula 1 to explore how 5G can elevate the experience of motor racing fans. Others include 5G Vista, a project delivering a more interactive and broader range of contents to sports fans; 5G Festival, creating a “festival of the future” where artists and audiences can gather and connect in person and online using the power of 5G; and 5G Testbed Accelerator, a programme where startups used 5G to enhance products and services.

The new Sonic Labs programme is supported by UK comms regulator Ofcom and funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to determine the practical viability and performance of Open RAN solutions. The technology is seen as demonstrating the strategic global value of the Sonic Labs programme. The programme has established a commercially neutral, collaborative environment for testing the interoperability and integration of Open RAN products and services to accelerate market suitability. 

Testing Open RAN outdoors poses numerous challenges, including weather conditions, background noise, coverage footprint, signal strength, and regulatory hurdles such as council restrictions and spectrum licences. Overcoming these complexities is essential for validating the efficacy and viability of Open RAN solutions in real-world settings, and Sonic Labs says its programme aims to tackle these challenges, driving innovation and accelerating Open RAN deployment.

Facilitating outdoor testing of Open RAN is important for the technology’s development, as new test cases for Open RAN are explored and new applications of the technology are discovered, including streaming video content using Open RAN infrastructure. The next phase of the programme will assess how well Open RAN works in practical outdoor settings, mirroring the conditions faced by mobile network operators to provide insights to shape the future of global comms infrastructure.

The expansion of Sonic Labs to outdoor testing marks the start of an exciting phase for this innovative project
Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom

The new cohort members will be the first to use Sonic Labs’ outdoor facility and include AccelleranG ReignsLionsVVDN and Pegatron. In addition to the five companies using the outdoor facility, Alpha Networks will primarily use the Sonic Labs indoor facility located in Digital Catapult’s London headquarters. Over the course of the programme, all participants will also measure key performance indicators to improve Open RAN’s commercial viability.

Building on the success of the Sonic Labs programme to date, the new cohort members will showcase the success of testing and deploying Open RAN solutions outdoors, as well as challenges and lessons learned, enabling Digital Catapult to pave the way for future advancements in global telecommunications infrastructure.

“Success of this new phase of the Sonic Labs programme will be driven in part by granting access to both our outdoor and indoor facilities to the new cohort of vendors, as well as offering technical support and opportunities for collaboration with industry,” said Dritan Khaleshi, Sonic Labs co-director. “We will also continue to connect vendors with the wider telecommunications ecosystem to present new opportunities for investment and collaboration, as a significant contribution to the global charge in accelerating Open RAN innovation.”

Ofcom’s group director for network and communications, Lindsey Fussell, added: “The expansion of Sonic Labs to outdoor testing marks the start of an exciting phase for this innovative project. This is an important opportunity for the companies involved to test their products in a real-world, outdoor environment, which includes managing the many challenges that come with operating a network outdoors. We’re looking forward to working with this latest group of companies, as the project continues to develop insights that can help shape the telecoms networks of the future.”

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