Time was that the UK had major radio manufacturing through GEC, Plessey,
Marconi and Racal. We lost the factories but we never lost the brains.
Now there is fresh impetus in a fast-growing generation of domestic innovators
The UK has a long history in pioneering radio technology and this is reflected by the number of different UK companies in this space. Airspan, Blu Wireless, Cambridge Communication Systems – known as CCS – CableFree, cellXica, Filtronic and ip.access are established players that produce radio access network, or RAN, technology for everything from small cells to macro deployments for large areas, and the millimetre-wave technology that’s used to connect parts of the network together.
Airspan is headquartered in the US but also has a long established research and development, marketing and sales facility in Slough, Berkshire, which has recently been bolstered with plans announced in May for a 5G Innovation Lab. The new lab will focus on the development of Open RAN software, and 5G sub-6GHz and mmWave indoor and outdoor hardware for use in both public and private network use cases.
Airspan has a wide portfolio of 5G products, from sub-6GHz outdoor remote radio units that provide high throughput with 32×32 massive input, massive output, or MIMO, antenna arrays, to small, sub-6GHz indoor units capable of data-throughput speeds of up to 2.4Gbps. For even higher speeds it has a range of mmWave, open-standard, virtualised-RAN products which support up to 800MHz channel bandwidth.
The company has been closely involved in the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, notably by leading the AutoAir project at UTAC CERAM’s Millbrook vehicle proving ground in Bedford. This project enables the testing and demonstration of connected and autonomous vehicles and the accelerated development of 5G solutions that operate in sub-6GHz bands on a shared neutral host platform.
Also collaborating on the Millbrook project is Bristol-based Blu Wireless, which provides network equipment that operates in the 57-71GHz spectrum for high-speed transport, defence, 5G backhaul and smart-city applications. Blu Wireless claims to have solved the problems of range, mobility and interference management in mmWave systems to provide high throughput and range plus low latency for 5G gigabit networks. Designed and built in the UK, its mmWave equipment is designed for a variety of demanding applications and it can deliver carrier-grade performance at ranges of up to 3km. A point of differentiation is the ability to support high-speed transport applications at speeds of more than 180mph.
The company’s equipment is available and has been deployed and commercially proven in the rail industry. Rail operator FirstGroup, in partnership with Network Rail, DCMS, the Department of Transport and Blu Wireless, has rolled out 5G fixed, wireless, track-to-train infrastructure to serve FirstGroup’s South Western Railway, Great Western Railway, the TransPennine Express and Hull Trains.
From the silicon gorge of Bristol, we move to the silicon fen, where ip.access is based among the numerous radio-related start-ups that have been spun-off or have developed around the academic research base of Cambridge University. The company was acquired by Mavenir in November 2020, but the new ownership has re-affirmed its commitment to the UK with the establishment of a Centre of Innovation in Cambridge to focus on Mavenir’s open, virtualised, multi-radio-access technology, or vMRAT.
Although the development of vMRAT is focused specifically on the integration of 2G and 3G capabilities, the company’s ultimate goal is to develop an MRAT Open RAN system that is completely built on virtualised architecture, integrating all cellular stacks from 2G to 5G. Established in 2002, ip.access provides small cell and presence sensor systems. It develops 5G-ready small systems with the goal of unlocking the value of customers’ spectrum.
Also in Cambridge is CCS, which offers mmWave multi-point to multi-point mesh solutions that operate in the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum. CCS initially worked on licensed mmWave bands when it was established ten years ago, before shifting its focus to the unlicensed band.
CCS welcomes the DCMS announcement that 50,000 rural Welsh homes and businesses may be eligible for broadband upgrades, thanks to a new collaboration between the UK and Welsh governments. The scheme will help to cover the upfront costs of installing new gigabit-capable internet connections; the maximum funding available through each voucher has been doubled to £7,000 for small and medium-sized enterprises and £3,000 for residential premises. The company’s Metnet 60G radio units, which are manufactured in Ukraine, have been deployed to homes in rural areas. It was trialled in Monmouthshire, Wales, as part of an innovative DCMS-backed 5G pilot that was delivered last year by Broadway Partners.
The company first developed self-organising network, or SON, algorithms and deployed many networks in licensed spectrum. Now, in 60GHz, it combines its experience and SON capability to utilise the wider channels to deliver higher throughputs to end-users. The company’s small form-factor radios are typically deployed on street furniture such as poles or on buildings to deliver reliable 5G connectivity. CCS’s Metnet SON has been developed to achieve advanced interference avoidance that uses diversity of time, frequency and space to continuously optimise spectral efficiency, traffic routing, performance and radio co-existence.
Demonstrating the variety and scope of the wireless sector in and around Cambridge, cellXica has a team of about 20 people who are supported by local and international partners to develop and manufacture the company’s offerings. At the centre of the portfolio is the SC5 software-defined radio platform, the first prototypes of which were built during 2011. With variants to the original design and enhancements to the underlying firmware and software infrastructure, SC5 applications now include base-station applications for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks, specialist equipment for direction finding, and a range of test equipment.
The company’s hardware and software has been supplied to the government-funded Chalke Mobile community project in the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire. Through the project, which utilises Ofcom’s new local access licences, the aim is to provide a 5G non-standalone configuration with a narrow 4G waveform to optimise coverage area. To access the service, residents will need to use SIM cards with international mobile subscriber identities. They will also be able to roam onto UK mobile operators’ networks.
In rival university city Oxford, Wireless Excellence, founded in 1996, designs and makes the CableFree range of products for high-performance wireless connectivity with capacities up to 10Gbps. CableFree products have been installed for customers in over 80 countries. The company has an ISO9001-certified manufacturing facility and global network of distribution and reseller partners. It offers the CableFree Emerald range of 4G and 5G LTE products, which are aimed at private-network deployments but also serve mobile and fixed rural broadband applications, and safe city, mobility, automation and security uses. The company has defined its upgrade path to 5G and beyond; support for the internet of things is already included. The range includes CableFree Emerald software-defined and Emerald 5G NR gNobeB 5G base stations, which support standalone and non-standalone connectivity.
CableFree also offers a range of 5G small cells, which include baseband and RF functions in single, compact units. The cells are available in outdoor and indoor versions to cover all FR1 frequency ranges for 5G, and they offer fibre-optic and copper RJ45 ports for direct connection to customer networks.
Company founder Stephen Patrick says that one of the challenges of 5G is to deliver wider bandwidths and dense modulation. Channels up to high-order QAM modulation are required. These requirements together place great demands on radio design and implementation, with advanced techniques utilised to deliver power, bandwidth and capacity.
The company has an extensive portfolio of products over different frequency bands and form factors from large macro to small cells. Macro base stations feature multiple tower-mounted remote radio heads connected via fibre optics to a baseband unit, whereas small cells combine radio and baseband functions into a single compact unit, usually at much lower RF power levels.
Units are available in both standalone and non-standalone configurations as CableFree is looking to cater for both existing deployments with non standalone and greenfield private networks with standalone.
For 4G, CableFree created radios for use in the unlicensed 5GHz band, enabling operators to deploy networks without spectrum licences. Away from the university cities, Filtronic has been developing and manufacturing RF, microwave and mmWave sub-systems since 1977. Headquartered in Sedgefield, County Durham, the company’s E-Band transceivers, of which it has now shipped more than 50,000 units, are targeted at the growing 5G backhaul market.
The company reckons that E-band spectrum in the mmWave frequency ranges of 71-76GHz and 81-86GHz offers original equipment manufacturers wide bandwidth. Therefore, they will be able to provide 5G mobile network operators with high-capacity and high-data-rate backhaul, midhaul and front-haul, collectively known as XHaul. E-band has been identified as one of the critical wireless technologies required to address the demanding XHaul capacity requirements of 5G networks, and is now experiencing significant growth. Systems that contain Filtronic’s core E-band technology have been successfully demonstrated at data rates of up to 40Gbps.
AIM-listed Filtronic has recently won a Queen’s Award for export and has manufacturing capabilities in the US as well as the UK. “Over the past 18 months we have invested over £1 million in new equipment and have expanded our workforce in our hybrid microelectronics assembly facility in Sedgefield, County Durham,” said Filtronic Chief Executive Richard Gibbs. “This has enabled us to significantly increase capacity.”
The final member of the radio section is unexpected among UK companies – Nokia. The Finnish network equipment vendor retains significant UK-based R&D capability, notably at the Nokia Bell Labs research facility in Cambridge. Nokia’s 5G portfolio covers radio access, core, transport, software, security and services, and the company’s 5G products and systems are deployed and in live operation in more than 60 networks globally.