UK mulls £300m 5G support as university shows ‘printer-sized

UK mulls £300m 5G support as university shows ‘printer-sized’ system

12 October 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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The UK’s University of Surrey says it has built the country’s first end-to-end 5G system.

The university, based in Guildford, south-west of London, says all the components in the system are UK-made.

Meanwhile UK government departments are about to receive a proposal for £300 million worth of support for telecoms suppliers in the country. Details will land on Whitehall desks shortly, Capacity understands.

Rahim Tafazolli, a professor at the university and director of its Institute for Communication Systems and 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), said: “This achievement is testimony to the UK’s engineering capability and knowledge, and emphasises that this nation can play a vital role in the developing global telecoms ecosystem.”

The announcement comes as organisations close to the UK government are also looking at the country’s capabilities in telecoms systems. The government’s concern follows the identification of Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE as “high-risk vendors”, leaving just Ericsson and Nokia dominating the market.

The UK decision followed a US ban on the Chinese vendors. Since the UK blocked Huawei from 5G installations after the end of 2020, operators in other European countries have awarded contracts to Ericsson and Nokia.

One group of advisers – called the Catapult projects – is putting together a proposal for around £300 million to ensure the UK has “resilient communications”, said Andy Sellars, chief business development officer at compound semiconductor applications Catapult.

This will “morph into future telecoms networks or telecoms diversification”, Sellars told Capacity.

The emerging proposal has significant support in the ruling Conservative Party, he suggested.

The proposals will need the approval of the Treasury as well as department that are directly involved in innovation, industry and telecommunications.

“We’ve suggested £300 million for telecoms diversification over three years,” Sellars added. Companies looking for support will have to bid for projects. “The money from government will have to be matched by industry.”

The compound semiconductor applications Catapult has already published a brochure on what it identifies as strengths in the UK’s industry – including regional centres in south Wales, Scotland, south-west and north-east England and the Cambridge region.

One of the challenges the UK industry faces is that successful companies are often bought up by international investors. Softbank bought Cambridge-based semiconductor designer Arm a few years ago and is now selling it to Nvidia of the US; Microsoft bought Metaswitch Networks earlier in 2020; and last month Mavenir of the US bought Cambridge-based ip.access, a maker of small cell equipment.

Small-cell expertise is a key part of the UK government strategy, suggested Sellars. “They will be integrated with macro networks.”

This appears to be at the heart of the unrelated, but parallel, project at the University of Surrey, whose 5GIC is working with AWTG, a UK-based digital and mobile engineering company, and Lime Microsystems, which is based next to the university.

Their device, described as “the size of a desktop printer”, is called the 5G CrowdCell.

The university said: “Once connected to a network, the 5G CrowdCell uses software-defined radio technology based on Lime’s field programmable RF chipsets that allows coding to perform tasks that are usually reserved for sophisticated and expensive hardware.”

Dr Ebrahim Bushehri, CEO and co-founder of Lime Microsystems, said: “There has been significant research and development in the UK covering the key aspects of 5G networks. The work of 5GIC and AWGT, coupled with Lime’s radio technology, provides a leading-edge solution that capitalises on this visionary investment.”

Abbey Alidoosti, CEO of AWTG, described the 5G CrowdCell as “a unique system that will benefit UK industry and showcase UK engineering capabilities”.