The UK Government’s 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy (2020) set out the long-term vision for the telecoms access supply market. One where competition and innovation bring forward new deployment models based on open interfaces and interoperable standards, with flexible networks and an array of suppliers. Such a market increases competition and choice and will ultimately introduce interchangeability of equipment into the supply chain, boosting resilience.
One of the Government’s top priorities for delivering the strategy is investing in a R&D ecosystem that will support industry to accelerate the development of interoperable deployment methods, such as OpenRAN. Indeed, the strategy identifies the high cost of R&D as a key barrier to entry for suppliers of open and interoperable products.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is keen to understand from industry how government funding can support the R&D needed to enable interoperable technologies to compete with traditional deployment methods in the most demanding, dense environments.
UK5G therefore hosted an event on 12th May to provide an opportunity for the DCMS to explore industry thinking in this area, and test both the scope of a potential funding round and method of delivery with key stakeholders. Forty participants were invited, drawn from various interested groups (including operators, global vendors, new entrants, system integrators, small and large companies), and discussions were conducted under the Chatham House Rule.
Initial presentations from DCMS covered the strategic context and scope of a potential Open RAN Programme, as well as the likely structure of a R&D competition to support the Government objectives.
The group was then split into 4 separate workshops to explore:
● Deployment acceleration
● UK infrastructure readiness
● UK ecosystem scope and growth
This consultation with industry was an invaluable contribution to DCMS’s development of targeted R&D investment to diversify the supply chain. It helped drill down into the detail of the key barriers and opportunities in high-performance Open RAN solution development and opened up areas that are ripe for collaboration and ecosystem building.
With this information, DCMS hope to design a funding round for innovative proposals that target those key barriers to high-performance Open RAN - solutions that can deliver 5G in the most demanding environments efficiently and competitively. You can sign up for updates from the DCMS Diversification team for further details, as they are developed, and also provide your own comments through a survey open until 7th June:
Observations from the workshops
A variety of platforms are required to enable the UK ecosystem to anticipate and influence the evolution of Open RAN systems. An appropriate sizing of scope and scale of the possible solutions is required to ensure viability of innovative products and services, and readiness of national infrastructure that supports the deployment.
3GPP is on the cusp of defining Release 18, which sets the logical and functional requirements envelope. Open RAN, as an architectural enabler of economically and strategically viable deployments, follows behind. Nevertheless, the architecture needs to assure technologies and system interfaces deliver flexibility to prevent blocking of significant architectural shifts (such as virtualisation, D-RAN to C-RAN etc.).
The UK ecosystem will be open globally to ensure alignment and the development of products that have global reach, and also to encourage investment into the UK.
Spectral efficiency is important and a number of areas of exploration for R&D projects were identified:
● The EVM (Error Vector Magnitude) of the transmitter. Minimising distortions in the transmitter can improve range and allow higher order modulation, increasing network capacity. There are opportunities to reduce transmitter EVM and increase transmit power amplifier efficiency.
● The RAN intelligent controller and getting practical data on how this can improve spectral efficiency.
There remains a question around dedicated spectrum vs same band for small cells and macrocells. Open RAN should not be restricted to the Small Cell market, but needs to also address the macro cell environment. Specifically:
● Interference management is key;macro cells in these areas cannot be plugged into small cells which allow this due to difficulty accessing the sites. There is an architecture question here that needs to be solved.
● The role of mmWave could be explored if things are moving to higher frequencies than small cells.
There is a balance to be struck between power and spectrum efficiency. Spectral efficiency is important not only on the radio side, but also on the optical transport fronthaul and backhaul. Projects need to look at new system architectures that can better utilise the full spectrum available for fronthaul and backhaul. Optimising for power consumption is the norm but as sustainability becomes increasingly important key questions remain:how difficult is the actuality of Green Radio? And can groups deliver solutions that are both Open and Green?
Reliability, security and KPIs
Discussion was had around how projects might investigate or support the need for pre-competitive “reference designs” vs proprietary IP. Key themes explored included:
● Chip designs and the requirement for them to be open and accessible to drive innovation.
● The need to drive some convergence split in Open RAN between DU and CU and run the user plane on something that makes sense from a power consumption perspective.
● The need to encourage interoperability between vendors.
● The potential value of project consortia having access to a regulatory sandpit - working with the UK regulator, Ofcom.
MNOs are running on the PoC, IO(D)T and trials of Open RAN. Fixed service providers, TowerCos and Neutral Hosts that operate in the wireless industry are showing an interest in gaining access to Open RAN components and systems. Discussion was had around how supply chain production capabilities can be enhanced to increase productivity.
It was agreed that there needs to be testing of genuine interoperability - swapping out components with current kit. Current deployments are often “managed” Open RAN – and there was discussion around how projects can explore this swapping in and out of components.
The workshop agreed that interoperability between operators or between components requires a demonstrator. There is also a need for interoperability between components in the end-to-end solution; although it was acknowledged it is very difficult to take a whole system approach and assure the whole thing as an end-to-end solution.
Complex infrastructure reference from 3GPP with hundreds of interfaces and SI has always been a challenge, and now we’re taking the RAN and splitting even more (adding new interfaces), which makes the whole system even more complex.
Component manufacturers need to work with incumbents who do the baseband processing, exploring how to make those interfaces open.
A lot of the DCMS supported 5G trial projects are using small cells, macro cells, indoor cells – a diversity of size and network architecture already exists.
There should be specific attention on the installation requirements, particularly in the context of dense urban environment deployments. There should be a focus on power efficient, low weight radio solutions –targets for better power efficiency need to be defined. Finally,if the aim of a competition is to develop cyber-secure solutions that are viable in high-demand environments like dense urban, consideration should also be given to how that can be demonstrated in projects in different environments, such as rural, small cell networks, venues, ports and corridors.
UK infrastructure readiness
For both the replacement of existing deployments and new deployments, some assets should be available for utilisation. The traditional assets of power, tower, and backhaul may require enhancement. Whilst in addition the ecosystem moves towards greater harnessing of bare-metal (compute, storage and high speed routing) for cloud and edge, and mid-haul and front-haul support. Discussion was had around how the UK hard and soft (inc. spectrum) infrastructure can be better prepared for Open RAN.Key questions raised included;
● How do we ensure availability of Fixed network assets and products refinement for mid and fronthaul?
● Can we reuse infrastructure in the ground and how do we make the most effective use of bandwidth for each tower?
Optical architecture is also important to ensure maximum capacity of fibre. New technology approaches can re-use existing network assets (e.g. optical fibre) so that available assets (e.g. fibre already installed for mid and front haul) can most efficiently be used.
Getting fibre to every tower is going to take time, everyone is doing this differently. There was a strong sense that it is better to make use of existing fibre rather than adding more at great expense.
It was identified that Open RAN R&D projects might work with established Testbeds in the UK and that Federated Testbeds might be helpful.
UK Ecosystem scope and growth
Improving enablement of Open RAN as an architectural approach requires a shake-up of the existing value chains and discussion was had around whether the concept of Open RAN is accessible enough that it can surface unmet needs and new capabilities that could converge towards a common purpose and platforms. A key question was raised around whether ecosystem strategies establish principles for identification and proving of appropriate collaborations that expand the potential impact of Open RAN in cross-industry ecosystems, new products, services, processes and markets.
Mechatronic issues were also identified as important important - size and weight of equipment on masts, ruggedisation of RU and DU, power consumption issues - and a recognition that R&D projects could explore or support this. Closely related is the role of thermal design in cooling the radios, with a recognition that if efficiency is improved and weight is reduced, the mechatronic issues can be reduced.
As with other workshops, environmental impact was debated and how feasible it is to compete on lowest costs AND environmental impact There is scope to explore who is designing the most efficient equipment and which customers are taking this into account.
SONIC will be a good testing facility for the diversity of N77 equipment and CPEs.
The larger scale deployment of Open RAN into the macro network will be a longer-term phenomenon (4-5 years).
Additional questions about the design of a potential competition:
o What is the scale of grant required? How does this compare to previous grant offerings of £250K to £5m?
o DCMS funding rounds tend to have too small a pot which broken into too many small chunks so it is difficult to make progress.
o The larger the grant the better, but smaller grants may be viable based on the goals HMG want to achieve.
o £5m is enough to let us know is it worth pushing forward, potentially with other (larger) funds later down the line.
o Is a consortia approach appropriate? What does the size and make up of consortia look like for this call?
o A mix of direct company funding and consortia is appropriate, since UK strength is in bringing different companies with a range of skills together to make a significant impact on the industry. Supporting UK-owned SMEs directly would be the most effective way to grow UK skills and capabilities. Ideal consortium would include an end user (operator), a range of different technology developers (SMEs) and manufacturers.
o What is a reasonable amount of time to organise a consortia and prepare the bid? What is a reasonable amount of time to carry out this work? How does this change without consortia requirements?
o Good initial window of time as many consortium partners are already in place due to ongoing discussions over the past 9 months. Many SME companies are ready to start work immediately, so two months to prepare a bid is OK.
o Reasonable time to carry out the work is 24-36 months, since creation of new technology products or testbeds requires several stages of increased technology development.
o Best to get the companies who are ready to start immediately and bring in additional consortium partners later on.
o How can we encourage SME involvement in consortia?
o Making use of UK5G matchmaking services and the UK5G supplier directory are ways to develop engagement.
o How can DCMS support lessons learnt sharing? Are collaboration funding requirements helpful?
o Successful case studies from the projects are needed.
o Collaboration naturally comes from the consortium forming and the new commercial relationships that stem from working together.
o DCMS needs to be clear about funding mechanisms regarding collaboration
Readers still have the opportunity to share their thoughts with UK5G and DCMS by filling in this survey by Monday 7th June.