UK Hardware Developers Urged to Take Advantage of Additional 5G Opportunities

Date: 10.08.2022

5G and a diversified network long envisioned to reduce single vendor dependency and improve supply chain resilience, continue to present opportunities for UK hardware developers and other small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) prepared to collaborate according to Joe Gannicliffe, Head of Photonics and RF at the Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult.

He explained: “The departure of Huawei has resulted in a number of government initiatives through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and initial Future RAN Competition (FRANC) projects to support UK supply chain development. At the same time the government target of 85% of the UK having access to superfast broadband by 2025 and DCMS target of 35% running on Open-RAN (O-RAN) infrastructure by 2030, will necessitate more interoperability between different parts of the telecoms network.

“On a user level, we are fast moving towards a more connected society where 5G and future telecom networks will enable faster broadband access for more people in remote locations, new applications such as remote and personalised healthcare, smart cities and smarter manufacturing, and connected and autonomous vehicles; presents a whole host of opportunities for early-stage and established hardware developers alike.

Looking at the numbers, the global business opportunity enabled by 5G is estimated to exceed USD 700 billion.

However, Gannicliffe adds: “The marked reduction in the number of component suppliers in recent years have put mobile operators under pressure when it comes to maintaining secure, flexible and efficient networks for the benefit of customers. This has also raised additional concerns over choice, pricing and the potential for innovation.”

Talking about the importance of device interoperability in harnessing the potential of 5G capability and beyond, Gannicliffe says real opportunities continue to exist for the UK telecoms supply chain who can collectively take advantage of this diversification initiative without compromising device or data security.

“The UK put in place a “5G supply chain diversification strategy” with a core focus on accelerating open-source interface solutions. This means operators would be able to source technology from different suppliers.  This includes the introduction of O-RAN, which would enable operators to ‘mix and match’ different elements to build their networks, much like putting together a series of different Lego bricks to build a more complex solution knowing in advance that each piece fits together without issue.

“However, we should note that unlike standard deployment practices, the deployment across O-RAN will bring together several components from several different suppliers, which would pose both operational and security challenges.

“Let us consider operational energy efficiency for example. Efficiency losses at the interfaces are a particular challenge when working with generic building blocks; this then needs specific focus when considering the significant energy consumption of these networks and the drive towards net zero.”

There are a number of UK Government initiatives, including DCMS FRANC and 5G Create which unlocks a number of opportunities for organisations looking at how 5G can be deployed to improve people’s lives. Of the 15 FRANC projects, CSA Catapult were successful in winning two.

This includes Secure 5G and O-RAN GaN.  Secure 5G is about building a modular private network using a combination of commercially available parts and integrating those with novel power amplifier designs, all underpinned with quantum security.  O-RAN GaN is here to create a sovereign supply chain around RF GaN combining design, fabrication and packaging capabilities that could reduce the reliance on overseas imports for certain technologies.

The benefits of a UK sovereign supply chain are many, including the realisation of several new products and services and should be welcomed says Gannicliffe.

He added: “Greater diversification in the supply chain is hugely positive both from a design and a deployment perspective. However, with a small number of large vendors dominating the market for such a long time, we need to take a multi-faceted approach to invest in the development of physical hardware and equipment, software development, the integration of solutions into ‘live’ networks, and support the future skills pipeline.  The funding provided by DCMS now and in the future, provides a great opportunity for the UK to collaborate and develop an advanced ecosystem.”

“For technology start-ups and other SMEs working at the physical layer, this development and testing prior to commercialisation can be expensive. At CSA Catapult we are in a strong position to de-risk research and development into diversified telecoms hardware by providing access to our design studio, labs, testing equipment and highly-skilled R&D teams in Photonics, RF, Power Electronics, Advanced Packaging, and Electronics.

To find out more about the facilities and services available via CSA Catapult, get in touch here.