DCMS appoints Plexal to drive telecoms diversity strategy

Government chooses UK innovation company to understand and develop the role of SMEs in the telecoms market with particular reference to how to create a diverse market that supports the creation of home-grown, sovereign technology

Collaboration technology provider Plexal has been appointed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support the diversification of the UK’s telecoms market and stimulate the creation of products and services from small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups.

The diversity strategy is designed to alleviate supply concerns that emerged after the government’s decision to remove technology and services from so-called at-risk suppliers, in particular Huawei, from the UK’s 4G and 5G communications infrastructure, a controversial move that has led to huge cost to mobile operators such as Vodafone and BT/EE, calculated as being about €200m and £500m, respectively.

The government’s diversification strategy was formulated in December 2020 following its decision to remove Huawei equipment from national infrastructures. It has three key pillars: supporting incumbent suppliers, which will continue to be a major part of the UK market and will help the nation 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 Future RAN Competition (FRANC) scheme aims to tackle the world’s over-reliance on a small number of telecoms suppliers by developing what are hoped to be “new, innovative solutions” in the UK. It is hoped this will help to build confidence in the security and resilience of new 5G technology as it delivers major social and economic benefits for people and businesses.

The appointment of Plexal also follows the publication of the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, which was commissioned by the government to provide advice on how to effectively deliver a more competitive and diverse 5G telecoms market. It submitted its final report in April 2021, providing independent expert advice to the government on the delivery of the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy. The report suggested that private networks could prove a useful testing ground for innovation in the telecoms sector.

Working through the UK’s LORCA programme, Plexal has worked with leaders from the telecoms market to assess where there could be opportunities for SMEs to provide products or services. The aim is to create a diverse commercial ecosystem for private 5G networks that will enable large and small vendors to play a role. 

The SMEs will work with Plexal, the government and industry to carve out and develop opportunities and overcome any barriers that exist for startups to play an active role in the telecoms market. These barriers could include making sure the products are interoperable and have robust cyber security built in.

Plexal has identified SMEs that will take part in a 12-week sprint to develop robust business cases, technology roadmaps and investment plans. The sprint will support the government’s aim of developing a domestic capability for 5G and making sure the telecoms market includes a diverse range of suppliers – including a larger number of SMEs. 

Plexal is looking at current and future 5G private networks in two categories: fully private, where the value outcome remains isolated from the public; and currently private, but in future will need to integrate to the public network to realise all the benefits.

Andrew Roughan, managing director of Plexal, said: “We think there’s a big opportunity to understand and develop the role of SMEs in the telecoms market. Our open collaboration model, which is bringing industry, the government and SMEs together in a pre-competitive environment, is a novel way to approach the challenge of how the UK creates a diverse telecoms market that supports the creation of home-grown, sovereign technology.”

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