What we need in the UK’s telecoms diversification strategy

The UK’s 5G future is caught between more than just the one proverbial rock and a hard place.

On the resilience front, the National Cyber Security Centre has said the current situation of having just three large-scale suppliers is “crazy”. The Telecoms security bill, which will be delivered in the coming weeks will, among other actions, place a legal requirement to remove Huawei, one of those suppliers (alongside Nokia and Ericsson), from our 5G networks. Without further remedy, this moves us from three to two scale suppliers in the UK market.

On the deployment front, 5G was meant to be where we caught up. From being a 4G laggard to being a 5G leader, realising the economic opportunity that brings. Yet according to the secretary of state for digital, the cumulative impact of the government’s actions for the past 10 months is delay to 5G roll-out of “two to three years, and costs of up to £2bn”.

The telecoms diversification strategy, guided by an industry led taskforce and due to be published alongside the Telecoms security bill, needs to find a way out of these conundrums – and ensure that the UK can carve a place in the global market.

These are the three areas that that need to be addressed:

The government’s target is for 5G to be deployed to the majority of the country by 2027. We should not idly accept a delay to 2029 or beyond. That would be accepting the loss of productivity benefits and signal to innovators wanting to use 5G to build new services to go elsewhere. And more than that, by leading in the development of disaggregated network architectures such as Open RAN we can create global opportunities for UK companies.

Our network operators like EE and Vodafone need to have high levels of trust in their supply chain. It can take years to build confidence before equipment is deployed at scale. The planned National Telecoms Lab offers a blueprint for accelerating this – providing a testing facility for network operators, suppliers, and academia to test solutions and develop new standards.

Funding

TechUK believes that the government should set up a £300m R&D programme. By working with both the demand side – network operators – and supply side we can build on UK strengths to drive our own diversification and capture a share of the global market. The multi-year spending review has been delayed but the government must be flexible in areas such as this where funding can unlock significant investment and economic growth.

We are at a critical juncture. Not just for whether we will be a 5G leader but because the move away from traditional monolithic vendors to a more open and interoperable approach is a global one – Open RAN, just one part of that market, is estimated to be a worth $47bn by 2026.

The argument for growing a British integrated scale supplier is therefore for the birds; it would take too long and be counter to the momentum of the market. But we can capture significant elements of that $47bn if we can accelerate the maturity of UK companies and build on existing strengths in areas such as compound semiconductors, radios, and software which are essential for new disaggregated networks.

The UK has the opportunity to have a highly resilient, secure and diversified 5G network while prospering from the innovation that we can unleash. The US, Germany and others are already moving to do the same. Let’s make sure that this time we lead the way.