27 Nov 2020

Diversifying Telecoms: the innovation landscape and economic opportunities for the UK


techUK’s Diversifying Telecoms event series has so far explored the benefits of Open RAN and disaggregation for networks and operators. On 24 November 2020, our area of focus was the UK’s innovation landscape and some of the economic opportunities in diversifying the telecoms supply chain. We sought to further explore the new network architectures of the future — a key priority for government in its Spending Review. We were delighted to partner with the CSA Catapult on bringing this event together.

Meeting challenges with new standards

Julie Snell outlined that the mission of the Scotland 5G Centre was to lead in exploiting the opportunities of next generation networks through knowledge exchange, build a sense of permanence and promote its activities; helping the world to understand what Scotland has to offer. Julie explained some of the unique challenges Scotland faces in providing ubiquitous connectivity, particularly in rural areas. A slightly different approach is required, including community and private 5G networks, that utilises the ingredients and technology that is now accessible in 2020. The step change can be made by embracing the potential of Open RAN, sourcing hardware at a fraction of the cost and moving to a more viable model.

Enhanced innovation through collaboration

How can the telecoms industry, and by extension, UK consumers, realise the opportunities of digital transformation? Sharing insight from the National Physical Laboratory, Dr Andrew Smith, outlined the Future Networks Initiative (FNI): a programme that engages industry and government on the key challenges of next generation networks. FNI will enable accelerated new and existing assets to create a national scale test networks for future communicators technologies.

The programme will explore the security and resilience of networks, as well as help define standards and crucially the interoperability function. Adopting the mindset that nobody really knows how next generation networks will be built and operated, FNI will consider the flexibility and complexity facing the UK telecoms sector. The importance of a shared vision in this national initiative will also inform how the UK’s Industrial Strategy can be delivered, as each strand makes assumptions that there will be sufficient capacity, speed and performance in the UK’s communications networks.

How to drive UK leadership in disaggregated networks

Our first panel session grappled with the challenges the UK will need to overcome to claim its position as a leader in new and open telecoms networks. Julius Robson from the Small Cell Forum offered adopting an entrepreneurial approach as a way democratise deployment, to make mobile infrastructure completely different. Julie Snell agreed, noting that the UK finds itself at a unique stage, with an opportunity to significantly change our networks for the better. Whether that is through exploiting neutral host models for indoor coverage, to focusing on the interoperability of the network constellations through world-leading testing and specifications. It was agreed that the government can play its part by encouraging competition to help drive innovation. And if we as an industry can help close the digital divide across the UK, we must work together to solve together.

Supercharging the supply base

Dr Andy Sellars, Strategy Director at CSA Catapult, chaired our second panel, bringing together some of the key UK players in the semiconductor space. The panel acknowledged that the nature of radio networks embeds semiconductors so much that their visibility is reduced, but the features they hold are very important to network operators. So how to supercharge that supply base? Although the UK semiconductor sector is relatively small, it operates within a global marketplace where we lead on silicon design services and software. It’s vital that semiconductor companies are able to access testing facilities, with the right tools and labour, to continue this leadership position. Operators can help drive success only if they are fully aware of the capabilities in the UK sector. The panel agreed that it’s now time for an alliance of companies to form so that collaboration is encouraged, and help foster a cohesive ecosystem.

As we await the details of the UK’s Telecoms Diversification Strategy, there is clear evidence of the telecoms industry willing to come together and collaborate to help position the UK as a leader in disaggregated networks, ready to embrace the change ahead and help close the digital divide.

Thank you to our speakers and panellists:

Sophie Greaves

Sophie Greaves

Head of Telecoms and Spectrum Policy, techUK

Mia Haffety

Mia Haffety

Programme Manager - Telecoms and Net Zero, techUK

Tales Gaspar

Tales Gaspar

Programme Manager, UK SPF and Satellite, techUK

Matthew Wild

Programme Assistant - Markets, techUK