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UK comms task force leader warns of East v West 5G standards battle

UK Parliament told of long road ahead to rectify ‘market failure’ of lack of diversity in essential communications technology supply lines and of need to reassert influence in global standards

The new chairman of the UK government’s Telecoms Diversification Task Force, former BT CEO and former trade minister Ian Livingston, has told a parliamentary committee that it is quite feasible that the communications technology market could split into two global standards, one in Europe and North America and one based in China, resulting in commercial and security threats to national infrastructure.

Livingston was appointed to take the reins of the task force in September as a result of the UK government’s decision to remove technology from so-called “high-risk” suppliers, specifically Huawei, from the UK’s national communications infrastructure on the grounds of national security. The move has led to UK mobile operators scrambling for essential technology, in particular that supporting 5G networks, from alternative suppliers and the subsequent lack of breadth in these alternatives has promoted the creation of a body to identify more diversity within the telecoms equipment supply chain.

Even though the UK government observed that the 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, it accepted that requiring operators to remove Huawei equipment from their 5G networks by 2027 would add hundreds of millions of pounds to the cost and would further delay roll-out.

Yet it added that the current situation of mobile companies being limited to just three major suppliers – using technology from Ericsson and/or Nokia in place of that of Huawei 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 what it says will be an open, sustainable and diverse telecoms supply chain, bringing more players into the market to make networks more secure and delivering higher-quality products and services.

As part of this strategy, Livingston’s task force will provide independent expert advice to the government looking 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 O-RAN.

Speaking to the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, which was continuing its investigation into the country’s telecoms infrastructure, in particular 5G, Livingston clarified the remit of his role and said it was best to start with what it was not, namely re-looking at the whole issue of high-risk suppliers.

Instead, he said: “It’s really focused on saying, ‘here’s the policy – how do we actually enact it in a way that gives the UK the best chance of having a choice of diversity of supply of different vendors for communication networks?’, starting with 5G and later on we’ll probably also look at the fixed network as well.”

Indicating to committee chairman Greg Clark the policy settlements that the task force would work from, Livingston said the current government policy left the UK in a situation of choosing between a limited set of non-high-risk suppliers, and that the task force has looked at the strategy the government has put forward as to how it should try to create diversity in that context and what were the key things the UK must concentrate on.

Livingston also said the task force would adopt the “three pillars” diversification strategy that the government had adopted earlier this year. The first pillar was to look at the position of incumbent suppliers, pillar two was to look at attracting new suppliers and pillar three was to look at changes to network protocols for different types of infrastructure.

Pressed by Clark as to whether he expected to revise that framework substantially, given that he had inherited the pillars before the task force was set up, Livingston said the role was principally a question of implementing the three pillars, but there was another important strand to his role, namely UK capability.

“You can call it a separate pillar, and probably we will focus less on the protecting the incumbents and focus more on the areas such as bringing new ventures to the market, what you do in creating critical, more open choices of network, Open RAN and then areas of R&D and how to direct it in the correct way,” he said. “But very much we are trying to create a roadmap of how to do this, what are the areas the government should focus on and where it should spend its money. And hopefully try to avoid spending too much of it unnecessarily.”

Read more about 5G in the UK

The task force includes senior representatives of Vodafone and Openreach alongside industry and academic experts, and a representative from UK regulator Ofcom, and it will support the development and implementation of government strategy. Livingston said that as well as implementing policy, it will look actively at the issues preventing some of the things the government wants to do and that it will go out to gain the views of the supplier community, even though they have no presence on the task force. The force will also talk to governments and network operators in other countries.

After noting how the task force was created, Livingston turned to the job at hand and said the task force would be working in a world where there is bifurcation of technology between the West and China, and that has changed the situation he has to deal with it. “There’s not just a Huawei question or any high-risk vendor,” he said. “We’ve seen a massive shrinking of the base of telecoms operators at the same time as telecom networks are still being defined by proprietary equipment. And we’ve gone from a choice of three to a choice of two, as we stand today, but there are other options.

“We are actually trying to deal with the rush to try to deal with a problem going forward. I think the security advice is fine – it’s just this question about uncertainty about the future. We do have Nokia, we do have Ericsson today, and Samsung has been a bit involved. So, as we look forward, you could see a situation where the UK would not have sufficient choice. But we’re trying to shut the stable door really before the horse bolts, in that respect.”

Yet all of these ambitions could be hindered by tensions between Chinese and Western suppliers because of respective governments’ actions. It was in this regard that Livingston issued his warning that it was feasible that the industry could see the technology split in a number of areas, leading to a battle of standards between the two blocs.

“I don’t think it [a split] will stop interconnections and things like that, but we should remember mobile networks have long had different standards – UK and European standards used to be different to Korean standards,” he said. “So, for a long time, your mobile phones didn’t used to work in different countries. I don’t think we’re going there, but I think the standards bodies today are probably the biggest influence driven by China and its suppliers.

“We need to, as a group of countries who have perhaps different policy aims, have to reassert our influence either on these bodies, or potentially new bodies. So I think, if it became our role to fight standards, there could definitely be economic consequences and restrictions. And I think that’s why we need to, as a country and as the West, get our act together again on standards.

“We’ve dropped the ball on standards, partly because the work of standards doesn’t give you an answer in one year or two years. It’s a five-year, 10-year or 15-year exercise, but we definitely need a more influential approach from the West who want more open standards, who want security. We have to work hard to stop what is happening just now, which is probably a more Chinese-orientated influence on a number of standards-setting bodies.”

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