With recent updates to the Telecoms Security Bill, the 5G supply chain is becoming more important than ever and open RAN could be a key solution

Ever since the government first began to mull the idea of banning Huawei from the UK’s 5G networks, the issue of finding alternative equipment suppliers has been a constant struggle. Of course, Huawei’s major international rivals Nokia and Ericsson would be more than happy to fill the void in the UK networks, but in many ways this merely shifts the issue rather than resolving it – the UK’s operators would still find themselves overly reliant on a single company. Some other alternatives exist in the form of growing players in the RAN market, such as South Korea’s Samsung and Japan’s Fujitsu, but these two suffer from the same limitations.
Open RAN is an emerging concept that could serve as a solution. The idea is to create a more open and interchangeable RAN architecture, allowing multiple vendor solutions to be seamlessly integrated alongside each other. This idea would greatly expand the vendor ecosystem, allowing operators more customisability and flexibility. It would also serve to increase security and reduce reliance upon any single vendor.
Open RAN technology, while exciting, is still in its infancy compared to the offerings of the traditional RAN vendors. Many operators around the world have begun exploring the technology in earnest this year, including the likes of Vodafone and Telefonica. 
Now, the UK government has committed £250 million to the further development of open RAN technology. Japan’s NEC appears to be the primary beneficiary of this fund so far, with the a new UK open RAN trial announced this morning. 
The NeutrORAN trial will take place in Wales, with the goal of supporting live open RAN 5G in the UK in 2021.
“The project objectives are to reduce costs and drive efficiencies enabling rural communities and businesses to prosper by removing the digital divides that still exist in the UK and the rest of the world,” said NEC.
The first signs that NEC might be lining up for some work alongside the UK government came back in October, after the UK signed a free trade agreement with Japan, after which NEC announced it would open a 5G open RAN Centre of Excellence in the UK earlier this month.
But NEC is not the only beneficiary here. A SmartRAN Open Network Innovation Centre is also in the works, supported by Ofcom and its Digital Catapult project.
“In order to kickstart the process of diversification and build momentum we are making early progress by establishing a SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre (SONIC) that will create a platform for existing and emerging suppliers to come together to test and demonstrate interoperable solutions,” said the government.
The government says it recognises the increasing need to move towards a more diverse vendor ecosystem for 5G, hence this initial investment.
“Our plans will spark a wave of innovation in the design of our future mobile networks,” said UK digital secretary Oliver Dowden.
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