When in doubt, assemble a task force. It’s worked before

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Sep 25, 2020

  • British govt. Has ordered the removal of  Huawei from the UK’s  networks (by 2027). Now what? 
  • Form a committee of the tech policy great and good
  • Find solutions to what we’ve already decided is a diversity problem

Having dispatched Huawei, the UK government has decided that there is a clear policy hole to fill in the governance of mobile network infrastructure. With just two European vendors of full mobile network systems now available it would like some direction as to how to handle what is actually a tricky situation. So it’s formed a Task Force headed up by ex-BT CEO and former trade minister Lord Ian Livingston, to work out ways to diversify the UK’s telecoms supply chain and reduce reliance on ‘high-risk’ vendors.

The task force will feed in to the government’s Telecoms Diversification Strategy, due for publication later this year to address what it calls a ‘market failure’ because mobile companies are limited to using just three major suppliers in their telecoms networks. This, it says, restricts choice and poses a risk for the security and resilience of the UK’s future digital networks. 

Instead it favours a situation where  telecoms companies do not have to use high-risk vendors like Huawei or, alternatively, rely on individual vendors to supply equipment in their networks. 

The task force is made up of prominent and well respected industry and academic/policy people (list below) but rather than seek their views (which almost certainly wouldn’t be forthcoming at this stage) we decided to seek some sound opinions on the task force’s terms of reference from experts not included on the roster. 

Rupert Baines is the CEO of UltraSOC, which specialises in embedding analytics to provide visibility into hardware/software interactions in large scale environments. He says two mega-trends are apparent: at the macro‑level there’s the resurgence of nationalism and de-globalisation; while at the micro – within the semiconductor industry – there’s what he sees as the reaggregation of the value chain and resurgence of asics (application-specific chips). 

So what’s his reaction to news of the task force and its mission? 

“I’m largely rolling my eyes,” he says. “I think the first thing the task force might point out is that consolidation in technology is usually driven by good and sensible reasons to do with scale and advance.” In other words consolidation and lack of diversity is simply inevitable  as the technology gets more complicated and multi-faceted. And 5G is many times more complicated than what came before. “You need to be big and well-resourced to tackle an integrated, end-to-end 5G system and It’s incredibly difficult to come up with a credible alternative to the big three,” he says. "So there’s no way that the UK could develop its own” version of Huawei to extend supplier diversity if that was even considered seriously.  

“Actually I’m struggling to get an idea of what the problem is? It’s very hard to puzzle it out. It seems we’ve backed ourselves into having a monopoly,” says Baines.

At the other end of the conundrum is the Open RAN concept. It’s worth saying here that the jury is still out on the Open RAN, which envisages a mix and match environment of interworking components - antenna, baseband equipment, controlling software and so on - so different vendors may freely  interwork their equipment with minimal effort, thus granting the RAN supplier diversity.  Open RAN looks promising but it all takes time, multi-vendor effort and agreement to get anywhere - years of it. 

“Perhaps a viable diversity of supply can be found somewhere up the track if you make it absolutely mandatory that the two full system suppliers (say Nokia and Ericsson) commit to interworking their systems so that operators can be assured of diversity of supply,” says Baines  “But even that is full of problems.” 

So what can be done?  

“Not a lot is my answer,” says Professor William Webb, radio network expert and author of ‘The 5G Myth’ (available at all good online bookshops). 

“In principle you could tinker at the edges by encouraging the adoption of Open RAN but in reality it’s going to take a least 5 years before you could get the systems working properly, especially in 5G, which is 10 times more complicated. There’s just not much Britain could do on its own since it doesn’t have the scale to encourage the formation of a UK-only technology offering, except to throw some state aid at a few worthy projects," he mused. "I guess you could force a lot more openness and interoperability, but I can’t think of any specific regulation that would help - after all, vendors and operators are already going in that direction anyway.” 

“If O-RAN was sitting in a university, waiting for funding to get it to the next level, then you could fund it, but really we’re beyond that now," said Webb. "It’s just going to take some time."

What about joining with Europe on a regional policy?...  oh no, of course not. Silly me.

 The members of the task force are: 

  • Rosalind Singleton, Chair of UK5G Advisory Board

  • Clive Selley, CEO, Openreach

  • Scott Petty, CTO, Vodafone UK

  • David Rogers, CEO, Copper Horse

  • Professor Rahim Tafazolli, Head of Institute of Communication Systems, University of Surrey

  • Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Professor of High Performance Networks, University of Bristol

  • Dr Scott Steedman, Director of Standards, British Standards Institute

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