For the past 10 years Conservative ministers have asked, “Where is the British Google? The Silicon Fen Facebook? The Midlands Amazon?” All the while also condemning the interfering ways of previous Labour governments. We need to be more entrepreneurial, think big, encourage more private sector investment. The big arm of the state was strangling our burgeoning tech startups, they said.
Well, the controversy over the UK’s 5G network has shown that they should have been asking instead, where is the British Huawei?
When I graduated as an electrical engineer in 1987 I had a bit of a challenge. Eight years of Thatcherism meant the engineering jobs in my region, the North East, were few and far between. But I was lucky to be sponsored by a world leader in the emerging telecommunications sector.
Nortel was a Canadian telecoms equipment vendor which grew out of Bell Labs and had recently bought the British company STC. I spent eight years at Nortel, including developing pan-European interoperability standards which involved working with all the other equipment vendors at that time, such as Alcatel, AT&T, Siemens, Nokia, and Ericsson.
If someone had said to me that a couple of decades later, we would not be capable of building a European telecoms network without a Chinese supplier I would have been astonished.
And yet the government’s decision to allow a high-risk vendor such as Huawei to be part of our 5G critical national infrastructure was mainly because we “could not do without them”. The industry body MobileUK said banning Huawei would cost £7bn pounds and delay our 5G network by up to 24 months. How had the industry got itself into a position that our critical national infrastructure was so dependent on one vendor? The answer is a complex mix of economics, technology, competition, geopolitics - and the absence of any industrial strategy.
Faced with savage criticism from their own benches, including former secretaries of state, the government’s main defence was that the National Cyber Security Centre said the risks could be managed. But part of managing the risk was diversifying the supply chain so that high-risk suppliers can be managed out of the network in the long term if necessary.
The government promised to act as soon as possible but one month later we have heard nothing.
So, based on my experience and industry insiders, here is a five-point plan to give us back a communications sector:
1 - Go in heavy on standards
There are no successful telecoms systems which are not based on open standards. Standards are good for new entrants - they reduce the cost of market entry and the risk associated with an operator buying from a new player. Existing standards bodies tend to be dominated by the existing players, but emerging standards such as OpenRAN and the O-RAN Alliance could be the basis for innovative concepts and new companies. Government can directly support standards development and signal its support to encourage existing operators like Vodafone, as well as providing incentives and funding for new companies to get involved.
2 - Invest in next-generation communications technology research and development
Set out a challenge – like the Faraday challenge on batteries – for real innovation in future communications technologies. Smart antennas and the application of artificial intelligence to network optimisation are two important areas. Make collaboration with US and European researchers a requirement of funding. Look for innovations which are outside of generational technology, for example, and which offer significant cost reductions.
3 - Work with emerging markets on their communications needs
The Department for International Development (DFID) has a science budget, and African and Asian countries also have good reasons to avoid dependence on Chinese vendors in years to come. Vietnam has already banned Huawei from its 5G network. DFID could work with Commonwealth and other organisations to support shared research and development.
4 - Establish a Catapult centre for communications
Such a centre should specifically promote the commercialisation of new technologies, particularly on intellectual property rights and manufacturing. This Catapult could bring together academic groups such as the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre, and industry bodies such as the IET and the UK5G Innovation Network, as well as mobile operators and significant users of communications. It would also be worth looking at resurrecting the Future Networks Research Centre which BT had offered to host.
5 - Look at non-5G wireless technologies
Other technologies such as Wi-Fi can help to integrate networks and could support new entrants. For example, government could open up its Wi-Fi estate including Eduroam, GovRoam, NHS Digital and more, to allow operators to link seamlessly into broader “hetnets” (heterogeneous networks), enabling innovation around networks, business models and more.
The good news is that in tech you are never so far behind that you cannot leapfrog existing technology. The bad news is that it takes investment and strategic vision, qualities this government sorely lacks. Huawei is a test of both.