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UK ‘must work with other countries’ on alternative to Huawei, says Livingston

Ian Livingston.jpg

The UK is too small to influence to market for telecoms infrastructure, says a new report to the country’s government. And there is no long-term solution to the problem of replacing Huawei kit in the four UK mobile networks.

However the report, by a taskforce set up by the government, says operators should aspire to having 25% of equipment from new suppliers or through open architectures by the mid-2020s.

The report of the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, chaired by former BT CEO Ian Livingston (pictured), reads in part like a lament to the UK’s diminished role in the industry.  

“The UK represents a relatively small part of the global demand for telecoms infrastructure,” it says. “It is therefore essential that the UK coordinates its efforts with like-minded nations and focuses investment in areas that can succeed on an international, not national scale. There is no UK only solution to diversification.”

The UK government set up Livingston’s group to advise it on future procurement policy for the telecoms industry after it banned operators last year from using Huawei for 5G systems.

The report is full of “could”, “should”, “can” and “may”, as addressed to government and operators, indicating that Livingston and his colleagues are a step or two away from actually setting policy. So might he be: his Twitter feed has not mentioned the report but has two comments about the failed European Super League.

Livingston rejects the idea of directly funding operators to adopt new vendors or open RAN into their networks, but recommends a longer term approach of “directing funding to support R&D (or incentivising R&D activity in this area)”.

Ofcom, the UK regulator, “has a critical role to play” and should “address diversification as a strategic priority”. But the report is vague as to how. “This could include, for instance, facilitating discussions” among operators, the report says. “The Government should make clear that diversification is a key priority for Ofcom to consider alongside its other duties and responsibilities” and should “set out its intention to treat diversification as a strategic priority”.

The report laments that “the current system of standards setting is not working for the UK or its allies in delivering diverse, secure and resilient telecoms network equipment”.

It says: “There is an opportunity for the UK to take a lead in this area, working with other like-minded nations to enhance our strategic capability in shaping future telecoms technologies and global market dynamics.” The taskforce calls for “a UK-led, but internationally focused, industry solution” with “long-term commitment to consistent representation, cooperation, guidance and funding”.

But it warns — perhaps news to the UK government — that “telecoms technologies are designed, deployed and maintained on a long-term horizon”, and points to China’s 2035 plan “to cement Chinese positions as dominant in international standards work, both in governance bodies and across individual technical standards”.

The report omits to note that Chinese companies and research institutions are already dominant in critical 5G standards.

The government “should start work now to develop a long-term telecoms standards strategy, which will consider all elements of the network”, says the Livingston report.

“The strategy needs to be cognisant of the broader technology standards that may be relevant in future networks and recognise that the development of telecoms standards stretch well beyond the telecoms industry.”

And it seems to contemplate a breakaway from truly international standards. The UK “should consider a new free-standing body with the support of like-minded countries to be used as a platform to share policy and technical positions”, says the Livingston report.

In the short term, with China’s Huawei and ZTE excluded from the UK market, leaving only Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia as large vendors, the “the UK should create the conditions that will attract the entry of at least one, and ideally two, additional ‘scale’ vendors”, Livingston says. But the report does not identify which companies they might be — though it does hint that the real challenge is “future generations of telecoms networks, including looking ahead to 6G”.

It says the UK “should establish a programme for the research and development of 6G networks and for future ‘network-of-networks’”.

The Livingston report identifies a number of options:

  • software defined and self-organising open RAN;

  • software defined open networking;

  • edge computing;

  • network convergence;

  • internet of senses;

  • quantum internet; and

  • net zero telecoms.

 

 

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