The Ministry of Fun* has (virtually) cut the ribbon on its latest 5G testing centre to verify the security and resilience of OpenRAN kit seeking a place among the UK's 5G network infrastructure.
Backed with £1m of central government taxpayer funding, the SONIC Labs (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) in Brighton and London will serve as a testing centre for 5G RAN equipment. The the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has tipped Digital Catapult and Ofcom to administer the facilities.
The facility was conceived to accelerate the UK's adoption of OpenRAN technology. Although in its early stages, OpenRAN has been touted as a potential solution to the UK's bleakly homogenous 5G infrastructure.
It's not that simple, though
The great hope of OpenRAN is that radio area networks will be built from different vendors' systems – meaning any network wanting to use it would need standardised interfaces and interoperability everywhere. However, not all vendors are on board with US-led pricing initiatives on O-RAN equipment [PDF] and critics have said that software patents - specifically the many that belong to Huawei - are an inevitable stumbling block to the whole concept.
Where traditionally a carrier would purchase an all-in-one RAN solution from a vendor (like Huawei, Ericsson, or Nokia), or so government bods in the US and UK are hoping, an OpenRAN system would include components from multiple providers, all of which interact through standards-based protocols.
This is meant to lower the barrier to entry for new startups. To enter the RAN space, they wouldn't need to design the whole thing; they could merely make the radio transmitter and receiver unit, or the software that interacts with the core network, and so on.
But this presents new challenges. How does one determine that a particular bit of kit from a new vendor isn't riddled with security holes or lacklustre coding? Similarly, how does one know the kit will work properly with products from other vendors, and won't fall over during periods of high traffic?
- Samsung pushes out single console all-in-one RAN kit for cramped European markets
- Vodafone names vendors tapped for Britain's first wide-scale OpenRAN build: NEC, Dell, and Samsung
- Ofcom 5G auction ends with UK carriers spending £23m for choice spectrum positionings
- UK Telecoms Diversification Taskforce says Ofcom should take lead to ensure telcos don't rely on too few suppliers
These are the questions SONIC Labs is seeking to answer. In a statement, Digital Infrastructure minister Matt Warman said: "Our investment is a crucial element of our strategy to tackle the world's over-reliance on a small number of telecoms vendors by growing our own cutting-edge solutions at home."
Digital Catapult CTO Joe Butler added: "In SONIC Labs we are experimenting to make interoperability a reality. This effort supports our mission to drive UK capability in advanced digital technology and we are grateful to Ofcom for working with us in this partnership and to DCMS for the opportunity to leverage the 5G testbeds we have developed in this effort."
Warman said the government would be developing a strategy for spectrum management, focused on 5G and future wireless networks. DCMS has committed to publishing this strategy later this year.
The launch of SONIC Labs coincides with the publication of 33 new specification documents by the O-RAN Alliance. These flesh out the OpenRAN specification further, and include reference designs for specific components, as well as procedures for certifying and badging OpenRAN equipment. ®
*Also known as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport