Huawei reaffirms R&D focus despite sanctions
Huawei’s UK presence remains strong, despite government-imposed restrictions wrangling its consumer segment. Head of R&D Henk Koopmans talks to Saf Malik about innovation, partnerships and 5G and 6G use cases
Huawei has faced ongoing scrutiny globally in recent times over alleged links with the Chinese government, which it has strenuously denied.
US efforts to curb the Chinese firm’s position outside of China have hit Huawei’s consumer market share, yet it remains one of the global leaders in worldwide telecoms equipment revenue.
While its UK operations may have looked bleak at one point, its presence in the country, which dates as far back as 2001, remains strong.
Huawei’s website indicates that it added £1.7 billion to UK GDP in 2018 and has committed to spending £3 billion in the country from 2018-2022.
The firm says it works hand-in-hand with British universities and top academic institutions in the UK, while heavily investing into research and development partnerships.
Spearheading R&D in the UK is Henk Koopmans, who took responsibility for all of Huawei’s R&D activities in the country in 2017.
A 25-year industry veteran, his responsibilities at Huawei UK include leading design centres in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Ipswich and London.
In addition, collaborations with universities and other business partners across the country have been high on his agenda in recent years.
Koopmans says the budget for R&D in in the UK in 2022 will be around £100 million, with a large portion of that going to artificial intelligence (AI). Although he adds that the firm is keen on photonics and the Internet of Things (IoT), and those are both areas that will receive significant investment.
One partnership that Huawei has reaped the benefits of is that with Cambridge Wireless. The two firms teamed up in 2020 to deploy and build Cambridge’s first 5G mobile private network testbed.
This testbed is open to companies from several industries – from hospitals and manufacturing companies to start-ups.
Koopmans says it is essential to demonstrate 5G use cases to showcase what it can bring to industries beyond connectivity. Through a number of use cases, the testbed ultimately explains why 5G is an important step for businesses to take in an industry that will soon rely on such technology.
“We’ve got some companies to collaborate with us to really bring it to life,” Koopmans says of the use cases.
He gives the example of a gaming company that benefited from the low latency that 5G offers, allowing it to achieve its results over long distances and “transforming its business proposition entirely”, he says.
The game is called Hado and is an online augmented reality “techno” sport which allows players to take part remotely as it is streamed over 5G, making use of the lower latency available to ensure that the actions are performed in real time.
Koopmans also describes a robotic arm, provided by Extend Robotics, which he says could prove especially beneficial to the manufacturing industry. The arm can be controlled remotely and perform repetitive tasks in inaccessible or hazardous environments while the operator remains at a safe distance.
What we’re actually doing is solving real problems, so we’re inviting manufacturing companies that have real issues to solve
This was achieved by the superior uplink speeds and latency of 5G, and the doubling of cameras supported by the solution. Latency of less than 20 milliseconds enables real-time operation of the robotic arms from any region, a feat that was impossible on 4G.
“What we’re actually doing there [at the testbed] is solving real problems, so we’re inviting manufacturing companies that have real issues to solve,” he says.
“While 5G won’t be able to solve everything, it’s important to show companies what it can do for them.”
In addition, Koopmans adds, the use cases are not just limited to 5G. On the notion of fibre, Huawei is working on photonic solutions, which are optoelectronic products manipulating light waves.
“Literally a laser chip,” as Koopmans describes it. “We designed that and started to manufacture that in the UK for fibre-optic communications.”
While it is unclear how use of the technology can disrupt the industry on a large scale, Koopmans notes that it has “fantastic performance” and believes it will be used in switches and routers for fibre-optic communications.
But beyond that, he says it could transcend industries, including healthcare, and reaffirms that Huawei has an important role to play in the future of photonics – not just in the UK but throughout Europe.
Koopmans, though, says being based in the UK has some very particular benefits.
Not only has the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the use of digital technology, but it has also brought home the fact that innovation can happen at a much faster pace, he says.
He notes that Huawei is always looking for relevant partnerships in the country and that working with “natural collaborators” in a seamless way will only enhance the wider Huawei proposition.
Some of these natural collaborators may further apart” from ICT, but Koopmans maintains that Huawei is open to working with companies from various industries, including those with life sciences backgrounds and interests in big data.
He says that the company is also committed to working with collaborators from pharmaceutical backgrounds, with one such example being GlaxoSmithKline. GSK has itself opened a £400 million campus in Stevenage, transforming the city into a European hub for new life sciences businesses.
Koopmans adds that Huawei can work with the Medical Research Council as well as other start-up companies, adding to the long-standing partners it has maintained relationships with in the ICT field.
With 5G set to peak in the coming years, the ever-changing telecoms landscape has already, to some extent, shifted its focus onto what is to come. Murmurs of 6G are making waves throughout the industry, with Huawei rivals such as Nokia and Ericsson also showing interest in 6G network capabilities.
With 6G already generating headlines in the telco world, what does the next generation of connectivity look like for Huawei?
Koopmans describes 5G as a connectivity technology but says that the Chinese vendor is looking for ways to integrate 6G into other technologies, such as artificial intelligence, in a way that it becomes “native” to them.
This, he says, will allow operators to pull in more value and create more value for customers.
AI is one of the industries that will profit from 6G, as benefits from the technology are realised by key industry players. Academic research from Mitre has indicated that AI and machine learning will play an important role as an enabler of 6G technology by optimising the networks and designing new waveforms.
The research highlights that while 6G remains in its early stages, it shows potential to bring evolutionary changes that are poised to enrich users’ experiences and enable use cases.
“What 6G is going to do is actually make it much easier to combine an activity with technologies such as AI and security in a native way,” Koopmans says.
“To have the technology already built in is incredibly important because these are big technologies that not everybody will be able to afford.”
Koopmans believes that bringing in 6G will be a major change for operators, but it will also be a welcome one that will justify the R&D investment going into the new technology.
Once these technologies are integrated into one another, more people will be using the technology.
And with security at the forefront of UK policy, highlighted by the Telecommunications (Security) Act that was passed in late 2021, Koopmans believes there must be standards and governance for 6G.
With 5G, Koopmans says, Huawei has been in correspondence with the UK government on setting a governance framework for AI to verify and test the technology, and the same needs to be done with 6G to avoid “too many different solutions from different manufacturers”.
This, he believes, will only serve as a hindrance to the industry as a whole. He says the R&D community in the UK must come together to enable interoperability and standardisation.
According to Koopmans, players from several industries can come together to become “much more powerful” if they contribute to an open-source solution.
With that said, he adds that it would not be surprising to see a global standard in place for 6G.
“Diverging standards and technologies are costly for consumers,” he says.
“So, I think with 6G there could be a global standard – it will take time to reach all the agreements, but it is plausible.”
Before we get to 6G, though, Koopmans says the real trends are to provide integrated solutions to players in the telecoms sector.
He adds that, right now in the UK, there are enablers aplenty but there remains a lack of real, concrete solutions for companies to take advantage of.
Koopmans believes his role in the UK as head of R&D for Huawei is to make a difference for sectors in a meaningful way by providing those solutions.