Diversification, development and dialogue

Real Wireless long ago declared its full support for diversification in all its forms, driven by open and interoperable products. We believe that guaranteeing technology choice is essential for robust supply chains, diverse ecosystems, cost efficiencies, scale and indeed innovation.

That’s also a view taken by the UK’s DCMS in its 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy (which you can read about here).

One of the top priorities for delivering that strategy is government investment in an R&D ecosystem that will support industry to accelerate the development of interoperable deployment methods – like Open RAN, sometimes also referred to as “Open Interface RAN”. That’s because the high cost of R&D is a key barrier to entry for suppliers of open and interoperable products.

It’s a topic also touched on by a recent Diversification R&D Programme Consultation, enabled by Cambridge Wireless and hosted by UK5G, in which Real Wireless took part.

The event’s aim was to give delegates an opportunity to help shape DCMS thinking on the scope and structure of next potential R&D investment steps for 5G supply chain diversification, through a series of presentations and focus group discussions.

We feel that DCMS is right to be trying to support and to be looking for new ways to encourage and drive R&D. High R&D costs for telco grade equipment and components, not to mention the building of national networks, are factors that can shut out many potentially important players.

But there’s a problem. Markets tend to oligopolies when they are capital-intensive – and telecoms is a perfect example. We can trumpet examples of softwarisation but the reality is still about shipping and efficiently deploying hardware in remote, rural and urban environments. If you can afford to do that, you’re in. If you can’t, you’re in trouble.

As far as Open RAN in particular is concerned obviously government policymakers don’t want to be seen dictating to major players. However, as we’ve noted, some forms of intervention will be necessary to help diversify the market and bring more choice. But can a balance really be struck between public funded intervention and letting the market decide?

As for how the industry is dealing with this issue, the recent hiccup in O-RAN Alliance governance processes shows that industry consensus about how to handle political forces still has some way to go. Incumbent OEMs won’t simply step aside for new entrants; some sort of inclusive partnership system is needed.

The good news is that Real Wireless has facilitated a number of Open RAN dialogues and we can see that the UK R&D ecosystem has the potential to deliver value even though the market for equipment at present is limited. We don’t forget the strength of UK telecoms in intellectual property rights, standards development organisations and industry-shaping forums when advising on strategy formulation.

More recently UK industry is clearly going beyond traditional thinking on MNO deployment models: neutral host, indoor (via JOTS) and other enterprise and system integrator-oriented solutions are, if not widely accepted, certainly widely discussed.

But there’s much more to do to advance the case for Open RAN. To name just two, a nuanced understanding of platform strategies needs to be leveraged and the compute intensity in Layer1 of telco systems points to the need for system-on-a-chip (SoC) engineering.

There are examples of how this might work: the rapid deployment approach of enterprise/IT through the cloud, for example.

But there are also threats – and not just from uncooperative vendors or operators. Issues such as energy efficiency and security remain a constant challenge to approaches to disaggregation and open interfaces.

In other words there’s still some way to go – and this surely won’t be the last time DCMS discusses enabling environments for Open RAN. But at least they are being discussed, not only in the UK but also on the global stage and Real Wireless is committed to supporting and helping to inform, convene and broker their diversification processes for regulators, government policy makers, and operators in the UK and more widely.