Open access connectivity – the next frontier of 5G

5G mobile

Written by Andy Welch, Technical Director, West Midlands 5G

Mobile connectivity is rapidly changing and 5G technology is fast establishing itself as a critical conduit for integrating ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) to bring smart cities, self-driving vehicles and industry 4.0 technologies into our lives.

As connectivity is evolving, Open RAN (Radio Access Network) has rapidly proved itself a hot topic for the telecomms industry and the players within it. As we seek to improve connectivity across businesses and communities, extending network access to encompass more aspects of our daily lives, it’s critical we embrace the concept of interoperable network solutions. 

Under the current RAN model, we see a small number of suppliers in control of supplying network components, meaning the market is dominated by a handful of players with their own, end-to-end infrastructure solutions. 

The idea of Open RAN, is to create a marketplace where networks can be built using components from multiple suppliers, connected over standardised open interfaces. 

By encouraging the growth and implementation of open standards, more vendors can enter the market of building networks, which ultimately will bring us closer achieving superfast connectivity at scale. 

More suppliers in the marketplace are beneficial to all as it creates flexibility and resilience and encourages competition. This diversity will in turn reduce costs, create more bespoke solutions, and improve capacity for connectivity, supporting emerging digital technologies. 


The journey to interoperable network solutions

The UK government wants to use Open RAN and market collaboration as enablers for speeding up the process for deploying 5G networks, ensuring optimum user experience and continuity of service.

Their goal is for the majority of the UK to be covered by a 5G signal by 2027, ensuring the benefits of 5G can be shared by all.

In order to meet this ambition, we must encourage market competition and growth by proving integration of new technologies, solving some of the operations and maintenance complexities around shared standards, and improving performance of the hardware and software used for connectivity. 

We need to encourage the big players in the industry to adopt open standards and support and nurture SMEs and new players entering the market who are creating alternative solutions. 

With more vendors in the market, we must also ensure a shared framework of operation between solutions to ensure cohesion of service, especially now when these tools are still in their relative infancy.

Trialling how solutions perform and integrate as a network will also be critical to scaling up deployment in urban settings. We will need thousands of small cell stations compared to the bigger network towers of the past, we must navigate the challenges limiting network performance, such as reflections from buildings or moving traffic as well as ensuring that devices are as energy efficient as possible.


The future is OPEN

For the last three years West Midlands 5G (WM5G) has worked with industry and local authorities to remove barriers to the urban deployment of 5G, which has enabled it to become the UK’s best connected region. 

We are now using this experience to support the government’s 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy, promoting the deployment of advanced digital connectivity across the UK, growing the supply chain and improving future resilience. The facilitation and creation of Open RAN solutions will be a key step on this journey. 

One such project is the £2.4m ARI-5G, a government supported R&D programme focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), with partners including TIP, BT, Accelerant, Viavi, Amdocs and Attocore. Together we’re seeking to find answers to some of the critical challenges to achieving Open RAN, such as interoperable architectures, accelerating software testing and power management, all in a dense urban setting.

Working with West Midlands Combined Authority, we are also forming part of the Governments Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) work, with a local pilot awarded £0.5m to map out the region’s publicly owned assets such as buildings, land and street infrastructure capable of housing mobile network infrastructure.

West Midlands is already at the forefront of this technology being the first in the UK to produce a Connected Map, through WM5G with over 400,000 assets mapped to-date. This has already allowed quicker access to assets, reducing deployment timeframes by 6 months and the learnings are hoped to guide other regions of the country on their 5G adoption journeys. Expanding the network technologies available and simplifying access to public assets will work in step to achieve a naturally diverse and resilient connectivity solution and is a necessary step to the mass deployment of small cells.

Although there’s still challenges left to solve, I firmly believe collaboration from all sides of the industry, together with public authorities, will naturally create a better-connected environment, making it faster, and more affordable to expand connectivity; unlocking new opportunities and benefits to businesses and citizens.  

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