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UK government sets up task force to address comms tech ‘market failure’

Digital secretary announces line-up of task force to advise on plans to open up and grow UK telecoms market following the decision to ban Huawei

One of the consequences of the decision to ban the use of technology from Huawei in the UK’s national communications infrastructure was to expose the very limited nature of the UK’s essential comms tech supply. To address this issue, the government has set up a task force to drive work to diversify the UK’s telecoms supply chain and reduce reliance on so-called high-risk suppliers.

Making a huge U-turn on the decision it had taken only six months earlier, in July 2020 the UK government made its long-expected decision to remove Huawei technology from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure, announcing that it would commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the 5G network by 2027.

UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the decision was taken after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) reviewed the consequences of the decision by the US government on 15 May to extend its restrictions on the sale of hardware and software to so-called “high-risk” suppliers such as Huawei, leading to the Chinese comms tech giant not being able to buy equipment from longstanding suppliers.

Dowden said the UK could no longer be confident that it would be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment.

However, Dowden also revealed the huge cost implications of a decision that will see a delay in the UK’s national 5G roll-out programme. He noted that the original January 2020 decision to restrict Huawei technology to just the radio access network of the 5G infrastructure had already set back the roll-out by a year and cost up to £1bn.

Dowden said the new decision to ban the procurement of new Huawei 5G equipment from the end of this year would delay the 5G roll-out by a further year and add up to £500m to costs. Requiring operators to remove Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 would add hundreds of millions of pounds more to the cost and further delay roll-out.

The UK government said the current situation of mobile companies being limited to using just three major suppliers – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – in their networks represented a “market failure” that restricted choice and posed a risk for the security and resilience of the UK’s future digital networks.

Later this year, the government will publish its Telecoms Diversification Strategy, setting out key areas for boosting competition and innovation in the UK market by building an open, sustainable and diverse telecoms supply chain, bringing more players into the market to make networks more secure and deliver higher-quality products and services.

As part of this strategy, former BT CEO and former trade minister Ian Livingston will chair the government’s Telecoms Diversification Task Force, aiming to provide independent expert advice to the government as it works towards diversifying the network so that telecoms companies do not have to use high-risk suppliers such as Huawei or rely on individual companies to supply equipment in their networks.

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The task force, which includes senior representatives of Vodafone and Openreach alongside industry and academic experts, will support the development and implementation of the strategy. It will look at creating targeted measures to attract new suppliers alongside the current pool of incumbent, non-high-risk suppliers. The government is talking to a range of suppliers, large and small, about how it can support them to enter the market and accelerate diversification.

The task force will also look at ways to develop the capability of the UK’s vibrant and innovative telecoms sector. It will explore how to incentivise research and development, including accelerating the development of open and interoperable equipment that can be used by multiple suppliers, such as OpenRAN.

The full membership of the task force is: Ian Livingston (chair); Rosalind Singleton, chair of UK5G advisory board; Clive Selley, CEO, Openreach; Scott Petty, CTO, Vodafone UK; David Rogers, CEO, Copper Horse; Rahim Tafazolli, head of the institute of communication systems, University of Surrey; Dimitra Simeonidou, professor of high-performance networks, University of Bristol; and Scott Steedman, director of standards, British Standards Institute.

Ian Levy, technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, and Simon Saunders, director of emerging technology at Ofcom, will also be available to the task force to provide technical advice.

“The UK is already a leading nation in the adoption and use of digital communications,” said Livingston. “It is vital that we position ourselves for the next generation of technology, particularly 5G, by having a wide choice of secure, innovative and high-quality suppliers. I look forward to chairing this team of experts from industry and academia who can provide advice to government as to how it can best achieve these aims.”

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