What is Open RAN, and why does it matter?

02 July 2021

In the past, there were lots of companies that provided the technology used by mobile operators to build and develop their networks – components such as base stations, antennas and software that help to deliver the mobile services we use every day.

However, over time the number of companies across the world that produce this sort of technology has reduced significantly, meaning operators have been limited when it came to sourcing the components they needed.

This is a barrier to them being able to keep their networks efficient and flexible. The number of suppliers has now reduced to a point where choice is very limited and a lack of competition could limit innovation, drive up costs or reduce the quality of services offered to customers.

In order to overcome these limitations, the UK Government has put in place a strategy for ‘telecoms vendor diversification’. In simple terms this means the ability for network operators to be able to source technology from a wider range of suppliers.

Part of this strategy is Open RAN. This stands for Open Radio Access Network, and it is a network infrastructure that enables greater choice and flexibility in telecoms supply chains. It is considered to be one option that could help to improve diversity in the supply chain.

Open RAN has been compared to Lego, since it allows suppliers to build and improve their networks using different bits of technology, which can be used together in the same way that Lego bricks can be joined together.

It allows operators to ‘mix and match’ different elements to build their networks, instead of only using components provided by a single supplier. Examples could include separate hardware and software elements (either of which could be manufactured by different suppliers, for example), which the network operator can source and integrate into their existing network.

This encourages competition and innovation among suppliers, which in turn could lead to new functionalities and features that benefit the people who use these networks.

As costs for components could be driven down, this means operator investment could go further, delivering more capacity and a better experience for the operators’ customers.

What is Ofcom’s role?

Ofcom wants to encourage innovation and investment in networks, so people and businesses can rely on fast, reliable and secure services. So, we’re supporting the developments that will help to deliver these objectives.

Part of this is the SONIC Labs (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) project, a joint programme between Ofcom and Digital Catapult that will help to test potential new solutions for future use in the telecoms supply chain.

It was announced as part of the telecoms diversification strategy to help support innovation and competition in the supply chain market, and is jointly funded by The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Ofcom.

The SONIC network has been built across different locations in the UK, to test technology options and to learn what benefits it could bring. A number of companies are already taking advantage of this and with the project now live, suppliers from across the world have the green light to get involved and help shape the supply chains of the future.

You can find out more about SONIC Labs in this video.