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SONIC Labs – an important starting point in wider telecoms innovation and transformation 

Posted 7 Dec 2022

SONIC Labs – an important starting point in wider telecoms innovation and transformation 

This is a guest blog for Digital Catapult by Sophie James, Head of Telecoms and Spectrum Policy at techUK

It’s an honour to represent techUK on the SONIC Labs Advisory Board. techUK’s members – including not just those engaged in the Communications Infrastructure and Services Programme but right across the organisation – all share the ambition and drive to innovate in the UK, delivering a better future for people, society, the economy and the planet. 

It’s the ambition to innovate that underpins SONIC Labs too: offering an opportunity for vendors and solution providers to test and integrate their Open RAN products and solutions to ultimately enable them to deploy in live networks, thus helping diversify the telecoms supply chain. 

For techUK and our telecoms members, testing, integration and, crucially, security are the key challenges for Open RAN and the wider telecoms ecosystem. For security, the UK is in a new phase following the commencement of the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021. The security framework implemented by the Act sets a new standard for network security, and one which open and disaggregated networks will need to adhere to. 

Of course, security testing is not the primary objective of SONIC Labs. But the Lab’s work will be essential in exploring the new products and services that could push network infrastructure to new levels of intelligence and optimisation. Networks that are optimised are also modernised. 

Here lies a unique opportunity in the innovation and transformation of the UK’s telecoms sector. 

How Open RAN can transform the UK’s telecoms Sector

  • Cloud-first approach: offering flexibility, more collaboration and greater automation, testing the telco cloud and its virtualisation will help offer the networks of tomorrow agility and dynamism, with security baked in from the start
  • New applications and methods: programmability in practice – SONIC Labs offers the opportunity for new solutions like Radio Intelligent Controller (RIC), rApps and xApps to be scrutinised in a lab and field environment by a number of stakeholders and developers
  • Pushing resilience: testing secure solutions in open network architecture will help pinpoint where controls and added functionality are required, preparing these solutions for real-world deployments in the busiest environments
  • Tackling uncertainties: Open RAN continues to evolve, but there is still some way to go to full-scale adoption in large public networks in the UK. Indeed, its complexity may not assure security. However, SONIC Labs offers the perfect environment in which to explore uncertainties and ensure innovation is standardised

A word on energy

Like security, the energy efficiency of telecoms networks is not yet a primary focus of SONIC Labs. But, in testing and integrating new products and solutions leading to deployment in live networks, the programme can offer, over time, wider benefits to how our future networks will be built and operated. Certainly, the energy crisis has focused minds on this issue in recent months, but the longer-term ambition to reduce energy usage and increase sustainability in communications infrastructure is of utmost importance if we are to reach our Net Zero ambition. 

In examining the viability of new Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) applications and RAN evolution, what SONIC Labs is facilitating is the positive impact Open RAN may have in the diversification of the telecommunication supply chain in the UK. In innovating, we are transforming. Having the unique ability to test, integrate, and model the networks of the future, SONIC Labs is playing an essential role in modernising our communications infrastructure. 

For me, and techUK members, it’s encouraging to see the synergy between SONIC Labs and techUK’s telecoms work where we are bringing together the entire ecosystem to address the key challenges facing the sector and collaborating on the solutions and opportunities. From industry collaboration on telecoms security, overcoming the barriers to the deployment of fixed and mobile infrastructure, to maintaining confidence in the resilience of our networks, the spirit of collaboration matches the energy I can see driving the SONIC Labs programme.

Sophie James is Head of Telecoms and Spectrum Policy at techUK, leading its Communications Infrastructure and Services Programme. To find out more about techUK’s telecoms work – head to their website.