The new guidelines are expected to eliminate ambiguity around Open RAN’s design characteristics and ensure that it develops

The government’s commitment to Open RAN has been growing steadily in recent years. The technology first appeared to come to their attention while the government was mulling whether to designate China’s Huawei a ‘high risk’ vendor and order its removal from UK networks back in early 2020. At the time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson notably called upon the telecoms industry to “tell us what the alternative is” and, since then, it appears that the answer has increasingly been ‘Open RAN’.

By the end of 2020, the government had announced its 5G Diversification Strategy, aiming to expanding the UK’s telecoms equipment supply chain by removing barriers for entry while keeping security as a top priority. The initiative was backed by an initial £250 million investment. 

Just a year later, in December 2021, the government went on to announce a joint ambition with the nation’s operators, aiming to carry 35% of mobile traffic over Open RAN architecture by the end of 2030.

Now, it seems that the government is taking an even more proactive role in the country’s Open RAN development, announcing a new set of Open RAN principles that they hope will guide the technology’s evolution and deployment to “work in the interests of British citizens and business”.

“With so much momentum behind Open RAN, now is the right time to set these principles so industry and governments can take a common approach to developing and deploying this technology, so it delivers on its promise to disrupt the market and spark a wave of innovation and competition in telecoms,” said Minister for Digital Infrastructure Julia Lopez.

The document outlines four key principles for Open RAN’s development: 

1. Open disaggregation, allowing elements of the RAN to be sourced from different suppliers and implemented in new ways.

2. Standards-based compliance, allowing all suppliers to test solutions against standards in an open, neutral environment.

3. Demonstrated interoperability, ensuring disaggregated elements work together as a fully functional system — at a minimum matching the performance and security of current solutions.

4. Implementation neutrality, allowing suppliers to innovate and differentiate on the features and performance of their products.

The document also advises network operators and vendors to avoid fragmentation of specifications; prioritise optimisation of the requirements and priorities of mobile operators; create an open, transparent and inclusive approach, compliant with World Trade Organisation rules, to allow greater access to Open RAN technology once developed; create neutral testing environments for the technology; and ensure that the market remains transparent, particularly with respect to accessing relevant essential intellectual property.

Security, naturally, remains a major priority of expanding the ecosystem through a greater adoption of Open RAN technology. 

“Open RAN promises to make our networks more resilient and futureproof, but this market change must be managed carefully to deliver on that promise whilst maintaining security and performance levels. These Principles set a clear direction of travel for the industry to build secure and resilient networks for 5G and beyond,” said Ian Levy, Technical Director at the National Cyber Security Centre.

Despite the increasing support from the UK government, deployments of Open RAN technology in live networks are still few and far between, with most operators still conducting tests to ensure the technology’s interoperability. Vodafone is perhaps the leading proponent of the technology in the UK, having activated a small number of 4G Open RAN sites in 2021, as well as turning on the UK’s first 5G Open RAN site earlier this year. 

What role will Open RAN play in reshaping the UK’s telecoms industry? Find out from the operators at this year’s live Connected Britain event