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Innovation Briefing Issue 7 | Interview with Simon Blagden CBE

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 3 Dec 2021
  • Last modified 30 Nov 2021
According to Simon Blagden’s father, “he sells telephones”. But there’s more to the new head of the Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council than that. The independent Council was set up by the government to look at how to protect British industry and the economy from any problems which may arise from there being only two equipment suppliers to our mobile networks.

Blagden has been passed the baton by Lord Ian Livingston, who ran the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, a group which included leaders from many parts of the industry to look at the specific problems faced by the telecoms industry born out of the demise of the British telecommunications manufacturing industry. Where once there was GEC, Plessey, Marconi, STC, Racal, and more, today there are small interesting players such as Blu Wireless, ip.access, cellXica and Cablefree. But even when combined, these don’t match the scale of the companies we’ve lost.

Blagden is charged with understanding the problem, analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the British technology ecosystem, and advising government on what to do about it. And he is well-placed to do it. He worked at GEC-Plessey, which became Marconi, as an international sales manager. 

“They sent me off all over the world with traveller’s cheques to try and sell digital exchanges,” he told us. Success at this was followed by various roles including country manager of Bulgaria. “It was really exciting because it was at the time when the Iron Curtain was coming down. It was like being in a James Bond film.”

His roles after that, as CEO of the German telecoms copper and fibre company Quante extended his international experience. After a period in defence supply in South Africa he returned to the UK and joined Fujitsu as a non-exec chairman of telecoms.

“Just for two or three years, to help them sort out with some specific tasks,” he says. That assignment lasted almost 15 years.

“And I thoroughly enjoyed that. Fujitsu UK was a big beast, or is a big beast; about two and a half billion turnover in the UK, and half of that with the UK government, telecoms and IT,” he recalls. During his time in telecoms at Fujitsu he worked on supplying broadband equipment to support rural roll-out.

Getting the call

As Blagden picks up the baton from Lord Livingston. “I’ve known Ian Livingston before he was even at BT, which is a long time. And I had several chats with him during the period he was running this taskforce, and was therefore reasonably informed about what the role was of the taskforce.” But he was taken aback when it was suggested he take it on to the next stage.

“Out of the blue one day, I got a call from the then digital minister, Matt Warman, again who I’ve known since he was first an MP, and asked if I would like to carry on the role of the advisory council. I suppose it was like someone who gets surprised when they’re asked if they would like to be married and they had no idea it was coming.” It wasn’t a hard decision, he says.“ I thought what a really good opportunity this was for the UK, and I’d very much like to be a part of it.”

While Blagden is new to the role, he comes to it with a grounding in both telecoms and the work the taskforce has been doing. And he has opinions on the move to open systems, too.

“You have to start from the point of who pays for research and development. It’s a wonderful utopian world to believe that we can have open systems for everything, but companies driving technology forward need to own something at the end of it. If you’ve spent thousands of hours in research and development, you expect at the end to have some return in value for it. It’s also the way companies are valued: the finance community bases value on a number of issues, one of them being intellectual property. Companies drive R&D down a certain path with an expectation at the end that there will be return on it.”

Blagden is pragmatic about dealing with the situation where the only two vendors available to UK operators are Ericsson and Nokia.

“Any good Sergeant Major will tell you the first rule of survival is to completely accept the situation you’re in, or you’re going to die. We are where we are. What we need to do is look forward and how we’re going to put it right.” He sees the “putting it right” as an evolution. “What is important is the companies that are already playing in the space; we need to be careful that we don’t destabilise them, because they’re key at the moment. And you can’t magic overnight a new supply chain.”

The new council chief wants to build a model to evolve a new way of doing things “The UK is extremely good at research and development and innovation. We have a lot of small companies born out of a few hugely intelligent people that develop things and develop technology. What we’re pretty bad at is industrialising that and bringing them to market. And often, things that are designed and invented in the UK end up being made somewhere else. The first realization is we can’t do this on our own. It’s going to require an international cooperation. That needs us to look at other markets.”  To do this he is looking  East. “Whether you voted for it or not with Brexit, we’re out of Europe,” Blagden reflects. India has caught his eye as a natural partner. “This has a huge number of technology graduates. Really bright, really intelligent intellectual capability. And they have the capability to rapidly industrialise and manufacture. What we should be doing is working with countries like that, that have the dynamism and aggressive innovation to move things forward, to drive our own requirements and standards in partnership with them so that we can benefit from that.”

Blagden wants the benefits of inward investment to be enjoyed more broadly. “The whole agenda of creating fairness in the country, the government calls it levelling up, to ensure that we don’t end up with just the Southeast of the UK being the place where everything is done”. 

While he laments the loss of European subsidies and funding, Blagden sees freedom from competition laws as another bonus.

“It means we can focus properly where we want to develop areas of industry and put our funding in the places that are important to us.” That is not to say he doesn’t see European opportunities “Whilst the way that we work with Europe is completely different now we’re out of it, we should consider they’re our closest trading friends, and there must be ways of working with them.”

Lockdown Lesson

The need for better connectivity, particularly in suburban areas has been highlighted by Covid accelerating the move to telecommuting. “But here’s the thing. Until every premises is connected finally by fibre, or by 5G, and you eliminate copper from the last mile, you’re bound to have bandwidth challenges based on distance away from an exchange.” He cautions, however, that manufacturing capacity limitations are pushing up the prices of fibre.

It will be the job of the Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council to navigate the problems of the industry on fostering competition in the supply chain and suggest ways that government can alleviate them.

“The Council doesn’t have any decision making power,” Blagden cautions, “but it has great influence. Its membership of people drawn from industry, from academia, from the regulatory world, to ensure that we advise government on the best way of managing a diverse set of suppliers, a lot of international relationships, but also be aware of potential threat, both in supply chain resilience, but also in terms of the wider security threats. The reason the government wants the Council is to ensure that it’s in touch with what’s going on, and will listen to the advice that it’s given.”

The make-up of the Council is pretty much the same as the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, with nearly all the previous members signed up to continue their roles “We have three or four other people we’re inviting. I’m a great believer that if we should have as small and efficient a board as possible, in this case it will be about a dozen people, but we can always call on other people for views and important information.”

Simon Blagden’s father may be wrong. His son doesn’t sell telephones, and he hasn’t for a long time, but his role throughout his career has been in ensuring that the pieces are in place to make sure that other people can. The Supply Chain Diversification Advisory Council is just another step along that road.

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