FRANC, or the Future RAN Competition, takes UK policy onto new ground. While the UK’s existing testbeds and trials programme has helped stimulate the demand side of 5G, the new initiative is a focused intervention on the supply side. The programme is much more about leading-edge engineering.
FRANC is intended to stimulate a number of companies which officials hope will grow into alterative radio access network (RAN) suppliers, supplementing the established industry giants Ericsson and Nokia.
The competition has a subtle history – and is really a story of how the lack of a diversified supply chain has posed a threat to the resilience of our telecoms critical national infrastructure.
The paper trail begins with the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review [http://cwjp.co.uk/ftir] published in July 2018, which set out how to achieve the targets for UK full fibre and 5G availability. This was followed up a year later by the UK Telecoms Supply Chain Review Report [http://cwjp.co.uk/tscrr], which addressed new concerns about how that might not be achieved.
The supply chain review report was the first to highlight the need for a wider selection of telecoms vendors. It looked at three questions: How should we incentivise telecoms operators to improve security standards and practices in 5G and full fibre networks? How should we address the security challenges posed by vendors? And how can we create sustainable diversity in the telecoms supply chain?
The review recommended that the government assess the risks posed by vendors to network security and resilience, and apply proportionate and targeted controls to mitigate those risks.
Parliament then took up the gauntlet and the House of Commons Science and Select Committee reported in January this year http://cwjp.co.uk/5MDA, addressing the issue of supply chain diversity directly. Ruing that governments had not addressed the issue before, leading to a situation where mobile networks faced a limited choice of vendors, the Committee made some proposals to address the situation.
The Committee wanted the government to both work with vendors such as Samsung which didn’t have a strong presence in the UK, and stimulate new vendors. The report accepted that one of the reasons that the operators were tied to existing vendors was the need to support 2G and 3G and encouraged rapid upgrades to 4G and 5G. More specifically it recommended a “transitioning away from 2G and 3G technologies”. The report proposed that Government should back new testing facilities, so helping new entrants gain a foothold in the UK market.
The report recommended that “the Government should identify opportunities to support new market entrants scale their production by supporting the deployment of novel small-scale 5G deployments.”
It should also “provide details of planned measures to support diversification and expand 5G coverage in its Industrial Strategy.” The Committee also recommended that the government use regulation to force mobile network operators to buy from non-mainstream vendors, and re-examine the business rate relief on mast deployments.
The main recommendation however was that the government adopt a coherent, response to 5G: that the working with operators, funding innovation, ensuring national security and building testing facilities were all part of a national strategy for critical and emerging technologies.
The House of Commons Science and Select Committee report has also to be seen in the context of the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy (http://cwjp.co.uk/5GSCDS). Published in November 2020, this concluded that the risk of national dependence on a small number of suppliers is most pronounced in the mobile and fixed access networks, but also took into consideration the need for diversity in other elements of the mobile network, and the impact of increasing reliance on software and virtualisation of networks.
The strategy focused on the 5G - rather than legacy - network where the risk of market consolidation is most pronounced. It set out measures which looked to accelerate diversification within the mobile access network supply chain.
The Committee noted that as the UK only accounts for two percent of the vendors’ revenue it would be impossible to drive change on a global scale.
The 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy details a multifaceted approach across three strands of activity which balance greater network resilience in the immediate future, with bold and ambitious interventions to open up and grow the market into the future. The three strands are greater support for Ericsson and Nokia, attracting new suppliers to the UK market, and accelerating open interface solutions.
In its response, the Government outlined what it would do.
Much of this involved more research, such as understanding operators roadmaps for shutting down 3G and 2G. In parallel, DCMS had established the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce under the leadership of Lord Ian Livingston of Parkhead, formerly chief executive of BT. Its report http://cwjp.co.uk/tdt is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the direction government is taking in open systems and supply chain diversity.
There is a mixture of pragmatism on timescale and control. The Taskforce recommended that the Government should seek commitments from the four UK mobile network operators on 5G supplier diversity and open architecture adoption.
“This should be on a long timescale – perhaps five to ten years and recognise that individual operators will have their own considerations as they develop plans for 5G deployment and the replacement of Huawei equipment in line with the position set out by the Government. The Government’s objective must be to have the operators adopt and publish their supplier diversity and open architecture roadmaps,” the Taskforce report concluded.
The Taskforce specifically recommended a “challenge-led fund to accelerate suppliers’ product development for Open RAN in line with a collective set of performance requirements for UK operators,” and FRANC was the first instance of this.
It acknowledged that to address the requirement for competition and service differentiation between operators, “additional investment in and tailoring of solutions over and above the UK’s basic requirements” would be needed. To streamline adoption, the Government should ensure “that new suppliers have the funding to perform the necessary R&D to meet the operators’ performance requirements.”
Nine technology areas were identified for further research. These encompass technologies which will be key to future telecom networks, and where there is potential for the UK to be globally competitive – in other words, there was some export potential. The Taskforce noted that delivering on these recommendations will require sustained investment and coordination across government and the telecoms sector as a whole.
These nine priorities can broadly be categorised into three areas.
The first is Telecom-specific hardware and software solutions which are core telecom functions. These are listed as synchronised networking, software defined and self-organising Open RAN, software defined open networking and cloud-based solutions; and end-to-end networks including convergence across different network types, such as IoT, cellular, optical, satellite, and computing.
The second area can be thought of as ‘cross-cutting’ technologies that will play an increasingly important role in the design and operation of telecoms networks, such as data analytics and AI. The third encompasses socio-political issues such as privacy and trust, and environmental goals such as Net Zero.
The work of the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce has sired a new advisory board to build on what has been started, and that is being run by Simon Blagden.