The Senior Interoperability and R&D Lead for Telecoms Diversification explains aims, process and timing.
After weeks and weeks, sifting, assessing, and shortlisting, we’re close to achieving a milestone on the path we hope can create a more diverse telecoms market. The Future RAN Competition (which the team lovingly nicknamed ‘FRANC’ early on, and we made sure it stuck) called for projects that demonstrate innovative products and collaborations which need further research and development on their path to become commercial products. The winners receive a share of a £30 million pot. The response has been incredible - with companies across the UK and globally, big and small, submitting projects that truly have the potential to revolutionise multi-vendor radio access network (RAN) equipment that our mobile operators rely on.
But to understand why FRANC is so important we need to see how we got here. Consolidation over generations of mobile technology has resulted in only three large companies supplying RAN hardware to UK mobile operators. The Telecoms Supply Chain Review report in 2019 had already called for the Government to help diversify the supply chain. And when the Government set out a solid path to the complete removal of Huawei equipment from our 5G network by 2027 - that three became two. This lack of choice was bad for operators - but, critically, it presented a resilience risk to the UK’s telecoms critical national infrastructure. Hence, the need for the Government to step in. The Government responded to this by publishing its 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy in November last year.
“As part of establishing a holistic UK R&D ecosystem we will seek to support the incubation and scale-up of homegrown suppliers building on the foundations that exist across our universities and in regional advanced technology hubs,” the Government promised.
In developing the Diversification Strategy, the central question was how to maintain competition in the market over the long-term. For example, simply mandating the introduction of a third RAN vendor might plug an immediate gap, but it would be heavy-handed intervention, and would risk giving the market a proverbial fish only for a day of diversification. We were keen to support a new, interoperable model that stimulates the market of suppliers. To labour the metaphor, we want to make fishing a national pastime.
This is becoming possible, as the various network functions become decoupled from large vertical integrated vendors with the emergence of Open RAN standards. Equipment interoperability is at the heart of our long-term vision for the market. When equipment can be sourced from multiple vendors and the buyer knows it can work with the minimum of fuss, competition flourishes. In addition, the buyer is less exposed to vendor lock-in. The Government’s Open RAN strategy is to make multi-vendor the default.
We presented this vision to the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, chaired by Lord Livingston and comprising experts across industry and academia. The taskforce recommended investment in R&D, and identified five key areas that needed to be developed before open-interface deployments were technologically and commercially ready to be deployed at scale in the macro network. These were product development and engineering, systems integration, verification testing, performance improvements and network integration, and finally, maintenance services.
That’s where FRANC comes in. FRANC’s full name is the ‘Future RAN Competition: Diversifying the 5G Supply Chain’. FRANC was set up to stimulate the market for interoperable products, capitalising on the innovative ideas that were percolating across industry and supporting those that aligned with our diversification objectives. We prioritised areas that were particular pinch-points for performance when compared to traditional, ‘closed’ deployments: things like power efficiency, spectrum management, software platforms, and systems integration. But we also wanted to be led by the market, and have been considering entries from across a range of Open RAN functions and components.
FRANC represents a departure from recent DCMS R&D initiatives embodied in the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme. While the previous programmes have looked at how 5G might be applied, this is something new: promoting component development and product engineering for a quite specific part of the mobile network. This has been daunting at times, but it has also been incredibly exciting - as any exit from one’s comfort zone is.
Of course, FRANC doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor will it solve the problem of diversification on its own. It sits within a wider programme of diversifying the market, with the aim of removing obstacles in the path of potential new RAN suppliers. A complementary initiative is the SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre, or SONIC Labs. Established in partnership with the Digital Catapult, this is a test centre for demonstrating and improving interoperability between equipment from different suppliers. For example, in North Wales, the NeutrORAN project is putting neutral host Open RAN equipment through its paces in a live, outdoor rural environment. A new UK Telecoms Lab is on track to open its doors in the autumn of 2022 – focusing on security and interoperability testing.
This is how the diversification picture looks today - but for the UK Government to feel confident that all five of the Taskforce’s areas for development are being addressed, there is still more to do. We’re exploring how we can boost and guide product development, as well as stimulating new R&D that wouldn’t happen without Government support - at least not in the next five years. To do this we are consulting with operators, suppliers, and systems integrators to understand the barriers and gaps that need to be addressed in each of the five areas - as well as areas we may not have considered yet. The new Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council, chaired by Simon Blagden - a new external body that succeeds the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce - will inform our R&D strategy. Expect to see more competitions, funds, trials and events that are all aimed at creating a healthy, diverse and innovative supply market.
DCMS hopes that with backing for Open RAN, an ecosystem of suppliers is able to flourish. It demonstrates that the UK is open for business when it comes to telecoms investment, and that it’s the place to be for Open RAN research and product development. FRANC is one small step on this journey, but it’s a significant one.
The team and I have a hard task whittling down such a strong host of bidders to the winning few. It’s a testament to the appetite and creativity of the telecoms industry here in the UK, and a very promising start to delivering our diversification strategy.
The question of interoperability and long-term competition is a complex and multifaceted one, but the market knows that and is responding. I can’t wait to see what it says