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UK government sets out 5G tech diversification strategy

Second reading of the Telecoms Security Bill outlines specific measures to restrict the use of Huawei’s goods, services and facilities in 5G networks and details of the new 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy designed to build a resilient, open and sustainable comms tech supply chain

As expected, the UK government has laid out how it will mandate the UK’s telecoms operators to uninstall essential technology from so-called high-risk vendors such as Huawei from their 5G infrastructures, and has revealed the new partners and strategy for how it will try to diversify the country’s telecoms supply chain and ensure its future resilience.

In the second parliamentary reading of the Telecommunications (Security) Bill, the UK’s digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, has decreed that operators must stop installing any Huawei equipment in 5G networks from the end of September 2021.

First introduced on 24 November, the bill will give the UK government unprecedented new powers to, in its words, boost the security standards of the UK’s telecoms networks and remove the threat of high-risk suppliers, principally Huawei. It also sets out to strengthen the security framework for technology used in 5G and full-fibre networks, including the electronic equipment and software at phone mast sites and in telephone exchanges which handle internet traffic and telephone calls.

The background of the new legislation is the decision in July 2020 by the UK government to commit to a timetable for the removal of Huawei equipment from the country’s growing 5G communications infrastructure by 2027 – effectively a huge U-turn to the decision it only took in January 2020 to restrict Huawei’s presence to just the radio access network element of 5G setups.

The UK government said it would be making it illegal for UK telcos to purchase Huawei 5G network equipment from the end of 2020. Yet, as soon as it made its decision, the UK government conceded there would be a price to pay, calculated by the UK’s mobile operators to be running into the billions.

The call was made after the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) reviewed the consequences of the decision by the US 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 Huawei being unable to purchase equipment from longstanding suppliers.

The NCSC noted that such a move created uncertainly around the Huawei supply chain, and that the UK could no longer be confident that it would be able to guarantee the security of future Huawei 5G equipment.

New powers

The new bill also provides the government with new powers to issue directions to public telecoms providers regarding this decision to manage the potential of high-risk suppliers.

While so-called high-risk suppliers are already banned from the most sensitive “core” parts of the network, the bill will allow the government to impose further controls on telecoms providers’ use of goods, services or facilities supplied by such suppliers.

Indeed, companies deemed to have fallen short of the new duties, or following directions on the use of high-risk suppliers, could face heavy fines of up to 10% of turnover or, in the case of a continuing contravention, £100,000 per day. Ofcom will be given the duty of monitoring and assessing the security of telecoms providers.

As it made the second reading, the UK government said that the September 2021 deadline was an important milestone in the path mobile operators must take to get to zero Huawei in 5G networks. The new measures relating to Huawei are intended for UK MPs to scrutinise how ministers may use the Bill’s powers to restrict the use of Huawei’s goods, services and facilities in 5G networks.

In addition, it claimed that its new 5G supply chain diversification strategy would mark out the key steps in its approach to building what it called a resilient, open and sustainable supply chain, tackling the issues of over-reliance on a small number of technology vendors and pave the way for better connectivity. This would help mitigate the resilience risks to 5G networks ahead of the 2027 deadline.

It will see the government spend an initial £250m to kick off work to create a more diverse, competitive, and hopefully innovative supply market for telecoms.

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The strategy sets out a number of targeted measures the government will be taking forward and revolves around three key pillars: supporting incumbent suppliers, which will continue to be a major part of the UK market and help the UK meet its ambitious digital infrastructure plans; attracting new suppliers into the UK market; and accelerating open-interface and interoperable technologies such as Open RAN.

The government has announced that it will establish a National Telecoms Lab. This comprises a secure research facility that will bring together operators, existing and new suppliers, academia and the government to create representative networks in which to research and test new ways of increasing security and interoperability.

It also includes funding a new Open RAN trial with Japanese telecoms vendor NEC. The NEC NeutrORAN project will be based in Wales and will aim to see live 5G Open RAN within the UK in 2021, testing solutions to deploy 5G networks in the most cost effective, innovative and secure way.

The Government will also fund the SmartRAN Open Network Innovation Centre (SONIC). Partnering with Ofcom and Digital Catapult, this will be an industry-facing testing facility to foster Open RAN in the UK helping to develop a supply chain with multiple suppliers at every stage.

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