One of the four strategic priorities set out by the Telecoms Supply Chain Diversification Taskforce (April 2021) is to build UK capability for current and future generations of telecoms technology. It is certainly refreshing to have as a clear priority. But how realistic is this?
Perhaps it came as a surprise to some policy makers to discover that a lack of home-grown capacity had left the critical UK mobile infrastructure somewhat vulnerable. The gradual rip and replacement of Huawei kit left the MNOs with a choice of just two Scandinavian incumbent vendors of global scale. I guess you can blame the agglomerating effects of global capitalism combined with a hefty dose of geo-politics on this sorry state of affairs, but it seems almost careless that such a laissez-faire attitude had been adopted by previous Governments especially in such a highly regulated market. Certainly, this situation has been years in the making, with largescale global British telco equipment brands such as Plessey and GEC a distant memory.
To build back a substantial UK global capacity will be a long term task. Diversification requires coordinated cross-government actions in the broadest sense; clear signposting for prospective suppliers and investors; and clarity as to role and remit of Ofcom.
But the UK still has astonishing capability. We devoted 11 pages of Edition 6 (Summer 2021) to a summary of “Best of British” companies. Many of the finest engineers remain here or are working in international companies.
Of course, the UK represents a relatively small part of the global demand for telecoms infrastructure. The UK supply chain certainly needs to be stimulated by new scale and mid-sized global firms from overseas to ensure diversity. But it is clearly the intention to encourage UK companies to grow in scale to serve a global market – so supporting this sector will help to boost UK export performance.
In R&D terms the taskforce recommended action to accelerate Open RAN development and deployment. UK5G has been pleased to support the consultation for and the promotion of the new £30m Future RAN open competition (FRANC). The competition is now closed, and at the time of writing, prospective candidate consortia are being interviewed. Announcements on the winning consortia should be made in shortly and will provide some stimulus for new market entrants and home-grown talent.
UK5G is continuing to support DCMS colleagues as they consult the market on how future government funding might stimulate long-term R&D. We need to ensure that interoperable technologies compete with and complement traditional deployment methods in the most demanding environments – both technically and commercially. Future work will look at the focus of such R&D. It may be Radio Frequency (RF), analog silicon design, and power amplifier chipset design, or Software as a Service. Recommended technology priorities identified by the Taskforce included Time distribution for synchronization, Software Defined and self-organising Open RAN, Software defined open networking, Edge Computing, Network Convergence, Internet of Senses, Quantum Internet, and Net Zero telecoms
A critical issue however, is how any UK technology led firms can enter public networks. The huge scale and complexity of public networks and demands for resilience and reliability mean there are enormous barriers to entry for new businesses. It may be that the growing Private Network market could play a substantial role here, presenting opportunities to use a wider variety of suppliers in live testbeds analogous to public networks, but realistically new UK companies will be tier 3 or below in supply chain terms.
It seems unlikely that the UK will create a front line global telecom equipment vendor for the foreseeable future. But the opportunities are still enormous in the provision of specific, specialist, essential IP and equipment – just look at the massive impact that ARM has had on the mobile market.
To develop world class resilient supply chains we will need a mix of British and international companies supporting a global market for innovative telecoms capability. Without conscious interventions to encourage and support their development this cannot be achieved.
The Telecoms Supply Chain diversification Taskforce priority to build UK capability for current and future generations of telecoms technology cannot be taken alone however. It needs to be seen in the context of the other priorities and we will see government programs aimed at establishing influence in telecoms standards setting bodies to encourage best practice in security and open networks, creating the right environment for diversification through government and regulatory policy interventions, and identifying interventions and investment to accelerate the development and adoption of Open RAN2 technology.
Much of this work is underway, but there is much more to come.