The Satellite Applications Catapult added as a key innovator on the O-RANOS initiative

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In December 2021, Cellnex, the UK’s largest and fastest-growing independent owner and operator of wireless telecoms infrastructure, announced it had been selected for grant funding as part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Future Radio Access Competition (FRANC). The consortium brings together Cellnex UK and industry-leading academics at the University of Bristol as well as industry partners AttoCore, Parallel Wireless, The Satellite Applications Catapult and Weaver Labs. The Catapult join O-RANOS’s multi-skilled consortium, providing satellite communications and Open Radio Access Network (RAN) expertise and will support the project’s focus on the intelligent use of multi-bearer backhaul (including satellite communications) in ORAN. O-RANOS is the only satellite initiative of the fourteen initiatives funded by the UK Government’s Future Radio Access Network (RAN) Competition, making it a unique prospect for UK digital innovation. 

Mobile network operators (MNOs) have traditionally built and maintained their own radio access networks. Cities have often developed at a much faster rate in the past, due to greater commercial opportunities. In recent years, higher bandwidth capability 4G/5G has spread within the UK to more rural areas, enabling a more digitally connected population. However, fibre has yet to make its way through more remote areas due to three main limitations: distance, cost and environmental obstacles.

To further extend the opportunity of private-public interoperation, the project will implement novel backhauling and neutral hosting services with a particular focus on satellite backhaul (mainly using GEO and LEO constellations) for connecting to different core vendors. Westcott’s facilities will play a pivotal role in network development, allowing for additional use cases such as agricultural robotics, drone UAVs and Cooperative, connected and automated mobility (CCAM) applications –

Integral to the successful rollout of 5G and for the purposes of 5G-ORANOS, a satellite constellation known as Starlink has been chosen. Currently five companies have plans to field constellations of V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits. The architecture in place in Westcott will remain future-proof despite intense technological competition within non-geostationary satellite constellations.    

In an Open RAN environment the Radio Access Network (RAN) is separated into its three main building blocks. The Radio Unit (RU), the Distributed Unit (DU) and finally the Centralised Unit (CU). The concept of Open RAN is “opening” the protocols in the interfaces between these various building blocks (radios, hardware and software) in the RAN. When a Public Land Mobile Network (PLMN) is utilised by user equipment (UE), Open RAN routes the UE to the selected core network of a specific operator, registering and accessing the MNO’S core network resources and services. A key feature of Open RAN is the RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) which adds programmability to the Radio Access Network (RAN). The selection of the appropriate bearer (satellite or fibre) for backhauling will be coordinated by a routing decision mechanism through one or more xApps that the RIC will host. User technical requirements and logical analysis for the development of the xApp will all be performed. This xApp will select the backhaul link, steering data traffic based upon real-time network link characteristics as well as accounting for pre-defined policies. 

This project has the potential to vastly accelerate rural 5G deployments through offering a wide range of additional use cases, including smart agriculture, maritime applications and enhanced connectivity at sea. It will also provide an extra layer of reliability for emergency communications. Through network optimisation at scale, new business models leveraging this diversification of technology will be created for both private and public sector customers.