O-RAN: The secret sauce boosting 5G in the UK

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The development of Open Radio Access Networks will bring big benefits to the UK economy, writes Sally Bament, VP, cloud and service provider marketing at Juniper Networks

For UK networks and the customers they serve, the long-awaited digital future has arrived. While people across the country have been working from home this past year, mobile network operators (MNOs) have been diligently preparing their networks for an influx of new connections, as people gear up to return to more normal patterns of life and human interaction in our post-lockdown world.

5G hit the airwaves at a time when demand for high-speed, low-latency internet connections on-the-go arguably reached a plateau, as many people relied on fixed-line broadband connections during their time spent at home. However, with this undoubtedly set to rebalance soon – as commuting, evenings out and sports events in stadiums become normal and feasible again, and consumer demand for low-latency, high-bandwidth connections increases – cellular networks across the country are getting ready for the 5G boom.

5G promises to enable compelling benefits, such as frictionless browsing, downloading and streaming for today’s consumer; but because it was built for enterprises, the true promise of 5G is in its ability to provide the connectivity required for vast amounts of data to be transferred and analysed — thus helping businesses and governments unlock the power of IoT. In recognition of this potential, the UK government has set a target to ensure that the majority of the country has access to 5G by 2027. Achieving this goal, however, will require a significant investment in infrastructure. Fortunately, the UK has an ace up its sleeve: O-RAN.

The UK government has fully embraced an open, standardised approach to RAN as key for technology leadership in Europe and beyond. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is investing heavily in O-RAN as a part of its wider 5G diversification strategy. Recently, the government backed the creation of a new research facility to focus on the use of O-RAN technologies, and is going further with the announcement of a £30 million competition – Future RAN – to fund projects for adoption of O-RAN technologies.

This is in addition to the different 5G test bed projects in progress. From an operator perspective, of the four operators in the UK, two are hot on O-RAN initiatives, with both Vodafone UK and Telefonica announcing plans and partners for O-RAN.

The implications are far-reaching. O-RAN is a big step towards diversifying the 5G supplier landscape by removing the supplier lock-in of proprietary systems and reducing reliance on the same few infrastructure vendors. As the UK looks to bolster its economy following Brexit and the disruptions caused by the pandemic, O-RAN creates room to bring in other players that can help build a world-class telecoms infrastructure and attract the kind of global investment that will revitalise the economy and help the country reap the full benefits of 5G technology.

A recent report from PwC reveals that productivity and efficiency gains enabled by 5G will drive business, skills and service changes worth £43 billion to UK GDP by 2030. Multiple sectors are expected to benefit, from manufacturing to healthcare to transportation and beyond, as they expand their offerings to reach new customers in new places, and as people leverage their newfound connectivity to sharpen their skills and enter the digital economy. In short, 5G will be paradigm-shifting for the UK economy at large in the years ahead.

Of course, O-RAN is not a silver bullet for achieving the government’s connectivity goals – but it is an important step in the right direction. The new distributed architecture can help deploy connectivity solutions more efficiently, and the research collaboration between international and new home-grown players through the Future RAN project and SONIC Labs could help accelerate new use cases for connectivity.

While O-RAN continues to evolve, and wide-scale commercial deployments may still be a few years out, it has the potential to serve as a catalyst for 5G innovation in the UK mobile marketplace. With the O-RAN Alliance standard enabling a vendor-agnostic approach to integrating the RAN and core networks more seamlessly, the UK and its networks have an opportunity to accelerate and optimise 5G’s rollout for everyone’s benefit, increasing coverage and service quality in the places it’s needed most, and, critically – in the development of enterprise private 5G deployments – bringing the transformative vision and promise of 5G very much from dream to reality.