Can the UK find its telecom R&D niche?

Dr Joe Butler (right), CTO at Digital Catapult, shares his views at the UKTIN launch conference, as the University of Bristol's Professor Dimitra Simeonidou looks on.

Dr Joe Butler (right), CTO at Digital Catapult, shares his views at the UKTIN launch conference, as the University of Bristol's Professor Dimitra Simeonidou looks on.

  • The UK Telecom Innovation Network (UKTIN) has been officially launched
  • The aim is to identify and harness the various areas of telecom innovation in the country
  • There’s plenty going on, particularly in academia, but it’s fragmented in many ways
  • But in what areas can the UK make an international impact?

LONDON – UKTIN launch event – Despite having been active for quite a while, the state-funded UK Telecom Innovation Network (UKTIN) has held its official launch, bringing together a few hundred telecom sector movers and shakers to discuss what UKTIN is trying, and needs, to achieve. The big question is – does the UK have the skills, ability, focus and capabilities to have an impact on the global telecom sector? And what might UKTIN do to help?

Not surprisingly, the mood at the launch event was very optimistic: There was much talk about the potential that already exists across the UK, but a realisation too that much of what is already underway in terms of telecom-related research and development is mostly happening in isolation, in a fragmented way. But it does exist. So can it be harnessed and taken, in a meaningful way, to the international stage?

That appears to be UKTIN’s mission – to be a shepherd to the flock of UK telecom startups, academic research groups and any other organisations in the R&D sector, and help to guide them in a way that will result in impactful outcomes. That was the general message from Nick Johnson, a wireless networking sector veteran who was appointed as the CEO of UKTIN earlier this year. 

It’s worth noting that it was stressed on multiple occasions during the various launch event presentations and discussions that UKTIN is focused on all aspects of the telecom sector, not just wireless/mobile, though 5G, wireless networking and Open RAN did crop up regularly during the day. One of the people who made that point was Mike Short, a UK telecom and technology sector veteran who is now chairman of the recently-formed UKTIN advisory board

So is there anything worth shepherding? Absolutely. Indeed, Short noted that the UK is currently ranked fourth in the Global Innovation Index (behind Switzerland, the US and Sweden) and has been for many years, and is also one of the leading countries for filing patents. What the UK is not so good at – and this point was made by various people – is taking that innovation and turning it into end products or services that meet either local or global demand, and that’s one of the challenges of UKTIN: To help UK-based telecom innovators go beyond the R&D and intellectual property stage.  

This does occasionally happen already, even in the communications networking sector, and there are a number of examples of the UK’s existing strengths. For example, there has long been a strong focus on photonics research at various institutions over the course of decades, particularly at the University of Southampton on the south coast of England, and one of its spin-out startups, Lumenisity, which developed a new type of fibre (hollow core) that was so revolutionary and impressive, and genuinely world leading, that the company was acquired late last year by Microsoft – see Microsoft acquires UK hollow core fibre specialist Lumenisity.

The challenge is to make this the rule rather than the exception (though not just to be a pipeline for Microsoft, of course…). 

So are there other specific areas of telecom-related R&D where the UK could channel its efforts and become a world leader? TelecomTV put that question to the speakers on one of the panel sessions, though the answers were more generic than specific.

For example, Dr Joe Butler, CTO at UK state-funded digital technology accelerator Digital Catapult, noted that while the UK is not (and will not be) home to a large telecom network equipment manufacturer akin to the likes of Nokia and Ericsson, the current disaggregation and cloud-oriented trends in telecom is changing the way the supply chain is working and that is opening up smaller, niche areas where investments can be made to build a position in the broadening ecosystem. He also noted that the UK is already a hotbed of software and AI development, and telecom “is one of those areas that is ripe for AI to sweep through and transform it in quite a fundamental way.”

Later in the day, Neil McRae, formerly of BT but who has recently joined Juniper Networks, noted that the UK company with the most AI patents is, in fact, BT. “What we need to do better is take this out to the broader market” and capitalise on that innovation. “And we have to believe we can do it. We often underplay what we create here in the UK – we don’t shout loud enough about our own capabilities,” he noted.  

Professor Dimitra Simeonidou of the University of Bristol was one of the people who highlighted the UK’s leading position in photonics and open optical networking, a sector where there are already a number of small specialist companies playing a role in the broader communications networking market, but she stressed that a key role of UKTIN is to find and then help develop the initiatives that are already underway. “We are on a discovery journey, and we’re looking for the answers to your question,” she said.

Paul Crane, formerly of BT but now the CEO at Cambridge Wireless, noted that there is already a great deal of “world-leading radio frequency research” underway in the UK (think of the 5G and 6G research initiatives at the University of Surrey), while the satellite sector is also already strong. Indeed, a number of speakers throughout the day highlighted satellite communications as a fast-growing and increasingly important sector where the UK could play a major role in developments that could have global appeal. 

So some suggestions there of where the various UKTIN working groups could start in their search to find, nurture and encourage the UK innovators. 

But one area that was only slightly touched upon, and not dug into in any depth, during the day was the ever-thorny issue of funding. For academics, startups and others to develop any great ideas and patents, funding will be required in order to make them globally relevant. But where will this come from? It might well be the case that the UK is full to the brim with telecom innovators, but one of the main challenges for UKTIN could be that any innovators they find and help might just end up leaving the UK to get the financial support to take them to the next level. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV