Digital Catapult and Ofcom open doors to UK Open RAN lab

Digital Labs open ran

Technology incubation initiative Digital Catapult has teamed up with UK comms regulator Ofcom on a new ‘commercially-neutral, collaborative environment’ for testing Open RAN solutions.

The new lab is part of Digital Catapult’s Sonic Labs (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) programme, which is funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). The pitch is that the facility in Kings Cross, London, will provide Open RAN vendors with the opportunity to try out their products.

In general we’re told 15 vendors and 36 Open RAN products are already associated with Sonic Labs, ‘signifying the largest concentration of Open RAN vendors coming together to collaborate in a commercially neutral environment in the UK’. Digital Catapult has brought in nine new companies into the fold for the ‘next activity’ in the SONIC Labs programme, including international firms such as Taiwan based WNC and US based Airspan Networks.

The next phase of the project will focus on exploring the RAN Intelligence Controller (RIC), with four companies including Accelleran and IS-Wireless set to plug in their offerings for for ‘interoperability testing and integration.’

The project will also look at exploring outdoor focused products, and we’re told such field trials will help to give a more realistic deployment picture for Open RAN systems.

“We’re proud to be unveiling our new cutting-edge interoperability lab to give more companies the opportunity to accelerate the testing of their Open RAN products,” said Joe Butler, Chief Technology Officer at Digital Catapult. “Through our Sonic Labs programme we’re helping diversify the UK telecoms supply chain market and drive forward open networks in the UK.”

Lindsey Fussell, Group Director Network and Communications at Ofcom, added: “Open Ran technology is a vital piece in the puzzle towards creating more diverse supply chains in the telecoms market. And having a new, dedicated space for the SONIC Labs project where companies can test their Open Ran products and explore new approaches, will help this innovative project go from strength to strength. We’re looking forward to working with the new companies involved and continuing our partnership with Digital Catapult.”

The wider Sonic Labs project was announced in June 2021 and had the mission of give Open RAN R&D a boost to the tune of £1 million – which compared to the vast sums of money telecoms firms put into researching tech is a pretty small amount. It’s not clear what Ofcom’s specific role is in this new stage, other than perhaps lending its name to the project to add some weight.

Another quote tagged onto this release from Julia Lopez, Digital Infrastructure Minister says: “Our £250 million investment in facilities like SONIC Labs is boosting competition in the telecoms market and driving the development of new mobile technology.” But it’s not clear from the release if there’s another cash injection associated with this this specific new lab in Kings Cross.

Earlier this month The UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology announced £80 million the aforementioned £250 million warchest – dubbed the ‘UK Open Networks Research and Development Fund’ – will go towards a competition to fund projects around Open RAN. This seems to be a separate thing to Sonic – though their aspirations around trying to accelerate innovation in Open RAN are presumably the same.


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