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UK ploughs £110 million into 5G/6G research and development

The UK government is funneling cash into three universities as well as the UK Telecoms Lab in an effort to accelerate progress in 6G and 5G R&D, with a special focus on Open RAN.

The University of York, the University of Bristol and the University of Surrey will be given a share of a £28 million pot to develop 6G technology in concert with the telco industry, and £80 million will go to the UK Telecoms Lab in Solihul. The universities will work with ‘world-leading UK academics’ and industry players – the announcement name checks Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung – to ensure future network technologies such as 6G are “designed in a way that promotes a more diverse and innovative telecoms market, and brings an end to current network setups where all equipment within a network must be from a single supplier.”

Meanwhile £80 million will be served up to the recently announced UK Telecoms Lab being built in Solihull in the West Midlands. Having signed a new deal with the National Physical Laboratory, the lab will act as a secure research facility for operators, suppliers and academics to research and test the security, resilience and performance of 5G and 6G network technology.

One of the objectives of the UK Telecoms Lab seems to be about identifying national security risks and vulnerabilities within telecoms networks and ensure vital equipment and software are protected against cyberattacks.

The government has also begun a new R&D partnership with South Korea, which has the intention of accelerating the deployment of Open RAN and associated technologies. The joint project is getting £1.2 million from UK taxpayers, and will focus on the power efficiency of emerging technical equipment, which it cites as one of the main obstacles holding back Open RAN.

“The technology powering our phone and internet networks is evolving rapidly and with 6G on the horizon we must stay ahead of the curve,” said Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan. “This government investment will see top UK universities join forces with industry to develop the nuts and bolts underpinning new networks, create skilled jobs testing the security of the latest telecoms tech, and ensure our plan for a more diverse and innovative 5G market is sustained in the future. The funding will also turbocharge our work to strengthen telecoms supply chains so we are no longer reliant on a handful of companies to develop and maintain our 5G networks.”

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands added: “Tech is one of the most exciting and fastest growing sectors in our region so it’s great news that this £80m UK Telecoms Lab is being built in Solihull – reinforcing the importance of this sector for us here in the West Midlands. The Lab will bring a wide range of stakeholders together to drive innovation and create high quality new jobs for local people. With our tech sector already valued at over £15 billion, I cannot wait to see how this Lab helps to usher in an exciting future in the months and years ahead.”

Rather than putting some rocket fuel behind free-form R&D tasked with exploring what doors 6G might open up, it sounds as if the project has been given a hard spin in the direction of developing Open RAN strategies. This is perhaps not surprising as the technology – or what could more accurately be described as a novel approach to building radio access networks using equipment from multiple vendors – is the main reason politicians take such an interest in the finer details of the telecoms industry these days.

Ever since the US government decided Huawei kit was too much a security risk to have in its network cores (because of fears around data/access getting into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party by proxy), much of the West was left with an active market of two firms to buy the stuff from – Nokia and Ericsson. Perhaps in a bid to curb a duopoly it liked only slightly more than having the Chinese giant in the mix as well, and perhaps as part of a desire to open up the market to some more US firms, the US has been keen to press the idea that Open RAN is the way forward, and allied countries like the UK have followed suit.

Open RAN as a concept existed before all this, but it’s the political decision to remove one of the three main kit vendors from the board, and the subsequent creation of a market duopoly that has elevated it into one of the main talking points within the telco industry. The point is, it’s not purely a question of boffins hitting the books and moving comms tech onto the next logical step in its evolution, it’s also about mitigating/adapting to the impact of political decisions.

The arrival of bags of cash from the government will no doubt be a welcome sight to those in the various research units working on all this stuff, but you have to wonder if such a focus on working out how networks are built with as many firms as possible involved will in the long term be as fruitful as researching what it is 5G, 6G and presumably at some point 7G is capable of actually doing in the decades to come.

 

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