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Realising new innovation opportunities with Open RAN technology 

Posted 10 Nov 2022

Realising new innovation opportunities with Open RAN technology 

By Linda Ligios, Senior Innovation Partner at Digital Catapult

It’s an exciting time for the telecommunications industry and I was inspired to read about the innovative potential of Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN) in a recent SONIC (SmartRAN Open Network Interoperability Centre) Labs guest blog ‘The Building Blocks of RAN Innovation’. 

With the development of new standardised interfaces and interoperable equipment, Open RAN is removing the supplier lock-in of proprietary systems and introducing new competitive dynamics into the network infrastructure. It is also enabling new programmable, intelligent and virtualised functions which will allow operators to deploy network elements from a range of suppliers as well as explore new pathways for innovation and infrastructure monetisation.

We discussed some of these opportunities in the recent SONIC Labs webinar ‘How Open RAN can open the door to innovation’ and there was broad consensus amongst speakers that the real innovative potential of Open RAN sits in the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC), a new concept developed by O-RAN Alliance and built on principles of automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).

Open RAN is moving 5G toward a cloud-native future where new network applications will drive the next phase of revenue growth and roll out of new services. This will certainly require a shifting mindset for Communication Service Providers (CSPs) but what does this mean for the innovation community?

An open environment creates the foundations for expanding the telecom ecosystem and could enable the entrance of completely new companies ready to take advantage of open interfaces, enriched network data and modular architectures to satisfy new customer requirements for process automation and network optimisation. It could allow startups to step into the market with innovative business applications and technology solutions to help service providers deliver a competitive customer experience. However, it is still early days for real Open RAN deployment and challenges remain for a sector that has traditionally been quite difficult to enter as a new supplier. So how can we explore new opportunities in a market that is only just emerging?

“It is important for us to engage with a variety of organisations from diverse backgrounds to bring their capabilities and knowledge. RAN is getting more complex, and we need experts that offer specialised solutions to make the RAN of the future smarter and more efficient.” Murali Ranganathan
Connectivity Technology, Ecosystem Development at Meta

How we’re fostering innovation through the SONIC Labs programme 

As part of the SONIC Labs programme, working in partnership with Ofcom, Digital Catapult is leveraging interoperability testing in open networks to unlock innovation and drive the future of network supply chain. As well as providing platforms for existing and emerging suppliers to test the interoperability and integration of open and software-centric networking solutions, we are also pioneering new early stage solution ideation activities to create an innovation layer of companies that can take advantage of Open RAN as an opportunity whilst addressing the supply chain diversification.

I’m thrilled to be leading the innovation work stream at SONIC Labs, central to my role is collaborating with a team of experts to explore how tested engagement methodologies from digital innovation can be applied in novel ways to accelerate learning and the growth of a new ecosystem.

With our experimental activities we want to enable innovators from sectors within and, even more importantly, outside telecoms to explore new solutions and be aware of the capacities and capabilities necessary to start new business ventures or academic research tackling emerging Open RAN challenges, or grow into this space. Our aim is to “democratise” the supply chain in the UK and to do this we have to consider how we can lower the barrier to entry whilst we identify a technology area that has potential benefits and can support innovative use cases. 

As we explore innovation opportunities with disaggregated RAN components, it is obvious that RIC represents the perfect starting point as it allows us to leverage the thriving UK community of application developers, researchers and businesses with AI and ML expertise.

Earlier this year, alongside Ofcom and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), we decided to partner with VMware and BT to define a real-world use case. We launched a call to market that presented a RIC challenge and invited digital innovators to participate in an educational session followed by an in-person workshop at Digital Catapult.

As with all experimental activities, we had to manage our expectations but we were pleasantly surprised by the turnout and enthusiasm of the participants who joined both sessions on 22nd September and 4th October. Seven organisations including startups Net AI, Flying River and Ultracell Networks joined us in a full-day event to explore how AI-driven applications (e.g xApps, rApps) running on the RIC could help to optimise RAN performance, for example, to improve energy efficiency. 

The workshop brought together innovators from both business and academia to brainstorm ideas in a neutral convening space whilst providing them with a launch pad to help them connect with other companies and potentially develop new products and partnerships. As we continue to explore how we can support companies further, we are looking forward to delivering unique activities for SONIC Labs seeding opportunities for the future of innovation in this space.

As a Mobile Network Operator we see the value of Open RAN as being inherent in the RIC. With 5G specifically, we’re looking for differentiation of our services which the RIC enables, but confidence needs to grow – if we were to deploy an XApp on our network for example – it needs to work from day one. Adrian Sharples
Senior Manager Wireless Research at BT

Our key takeaways and learnings

  • Open RAN with the new RIC component adds a new level of intelligence and virtualised functions in the network infrastructure that can help providers differentiate and further monetise services.  
  • There is a lower barrier of entry for completely new companies in the software industry as compared to hardware-design activities, they require longer sustained investment. 
  • Open RAN offers a great opportunity for innovators from within and outside the telecom space to develop AI-driven applications leveraging RIC’s near real time data to optimise energy efficiency.
  • Funding and access to testbeds is required to support innovation in this space. 
It was great to participate in the SONIC Labs Innovation workshop and meet the open RAN community. The sessions paved the way  to share the current challenges in the landscape and expectations from service providers.   These workshops bring diverse partners together and the shared vision helps to foster effective Radio Intelligence Controllers (RICs) and xAPPs towards the realisation of diverse and rich Open RAN ecosystem. Seshaiah Ponnekanti
Business Development Manager at NetAI

What is coming next 

There is certainly an appetite for companies to learn more and explore how they can take advantage of Open RAN as an opportunity to develop new products and services, so we will continue to use our  SONIC Labs programme as a catalyst for additional expansion of the UK supply chain in telecoms which is not limited to Centralised Unit, Radio Unit, Distributed Unit, and RIC components. 

We are currently exploring how we can partner with other RIC vendors and UK Mobile Network Operators to continue to facilitate early stage ideas and product development whilst offering a testing platform for targeted deployment.

If you are interested in joining SONIC Labs to help us support the emergence of new tech startups in Open RAN please register your interest on our website