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UK lines up international allies on Open RAN

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Australia, Canada and the US have agreed to back the UK’s vision for the development of Open RAN, a move that is all about improving vendor diversity in the telecoms space.

And, of course, the unsaid goal of keeping the big Chinese companies, one in particular, out of Western mobile networks.

But we’ll focus on the positives. Earlier this year the UK government published a set of principles for the development and deployment of Open RAN equipment, with the aim of getting in on the ground floor as standards develop and fostering the idea of a common approach between nations. Its four key principles centre on open disaggregation; standards-based compliance; demonstrated interoperability; and implementation neutrality. You probably get the idea what it’s all about from those broad headers, but there’s more information here.

Now, it has revealed that old allies Australia, Canada and the US have become the first to endorse its principles, which it claims will “send a clear signal to telecoms firms across the globe about how the four countries would like to see the benefits of Open RAN realised.”

Furthermore, the pact will help boost competition in the market for equipment for 5G and 6G mobile networks, and other future networks, by reducing the world’s dependency on a small number of players, it said.

“The UK has set out a blueprint for telecoms firms across the world to design more open and secure networks,” said Digital Infrastructure Minister Julia Lopez. “With the endorsement of Australia, Canada and the United States, the industry now has the clarity it needs to deliver a new generation of wireless infrastructure fit for the future.”

As the instigator of this particular Open RAN initiative, the UK is naturally overplaying its significance in the broader global development of the technology. But nonetheless, it is positive to see national governments getting involved and doing their bit for tech advancement, at least from the point of view of greater collaboration.

The UK has been working on vendor diversification for a couple of years. It unveiled its Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, under the leadership of former BT chief executive Lord Livingston, in autumn 2020 and has since shared details of a number of initiatives to the same end. Open RAN has emerged as a key element of its thinking on the subject, hence the launch of the £1 million SONIC Open RAN testing programme and the subsequent FRANC contest, to offer £30-odd million in funding to Open RAN projects, in summer 2021.

It is also encouraging UK mobile operators to increase their usage of open and interoperable network kit – whether they need that encouragement or not – and is talking up progress from Vodafone and Telefonica in particular, both of which have deployed live Open RAN sites working with new market entrants.

Indeed, Vodafone announced live Open RAN sites in urban areas of the UK just this week, triggering the usual government comments about UK leadership in mobile innovation, as you might expect. It’s worth noting though, that while Vodafone is working with smaller suppliers on its various Open RAN projects, there are also some big names in there. The telco recently inked deals with Nokia, Samsung, and NTT DoCoMo, for example.

But, as far as governments are concerned, vendor diversification is more about the provenance of the supplier than its relative size.

Which is where joint statements, like the one issued today, come in. And we can expect to see more of this sort of buddying up going forward.

“We intend to seek the ongoing support from other like-minded countries to truly realise the benefits of a diverse telecommunications supply chain on a global scale,” the joint statement from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US concludes.

It will be up to the four governments involved to define what they believe to be like-minded countries when it comes to Open RAN and other aspects of telecoms supply chain diversity. There are no prizes for guessing who will not be on the list though.

Indeed, you have to question whether the UK government – or indeed its international buddies – would even be aware of the existence of Open RAN, were it not for Huawei.

 

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