26 Mar 2021

Turning rhetoric into action: how policy would build effective sovereign capability

Over the last 30 years, I have watched Britain’s telecommunication networks industry bear the brunt of external financialisation and internal neglect – first, as an engineer seeing as our UK telecoms capability was bought and sold, and then  as a Labour MP observing Conservative governments’ lack of industrial strategy narrow our industrial base. 

I now see the Conservative Government come round to Labour’s position on securing national capability in our investment rules and in our telecoms security rules. Yet, there is no, or at least very little, pleasure in being proved right – the cost has been too high for our country! 

Agreement in theory 

The scandal of Government’s national security compromise with Huawei has changed the terms of debate. In Parliament and in industry,  traditionally differing sides have come together on the need for action.  

Action which I should say I largely set out last year: on open standards; investment in next-generation communications; international coordination; commercialisation; and non-5G wireless technologies. 

Four principles to strengthen action and secure sovereign capability 

To put those views into action, we need stronger Government action. To really develop domestic capability and attract new vendors, we need all of us – our policy, our network operators, our disruptive tech SMEs, our investor base, our academic strength – to act together, to act urgently and to act consistently. 

From my position, in both industry and parliament, four principles for action stand out.

  • First, a focus on the whole supply chain. We need a focus on growing capability and encouraging diversity across the telecom networks supply chain. In doing so, we need to look systemically at the supply chain. Yes, the total cost of core network equipment, and especially infrastructure capex requirements, matter for the market structure we get. We should find ways to make more parts of the supply chain interoperable. Yet, that alone is not enough. We need to look also at supply for semiconductors that power network equipment and we need to look at compute infrastructure that will play a vast role in the future. We won’t secure sovereign capability in each part of the supply chain, but working on our strengths – e.g. in design and prototyping of semiconductors – can focus efforts and double down on strengths.
  • Second, combining long-term ambition with short-term action. We need urgent, coordinated ambition to make open standards (Open RAN and O-RAN Alliance continue to make progress) a part of 5G standards. We need far greater, coordinated voice for smaller vendors in Europe and North America in setting standards. We need British tests of virtual systems that reduce hardware capex investments and lower rollout prices, so that more providers can play a role in the market. Yet, neither O-RAN nor virtualisation are imminent or complete solutions. Alongside those longer-term ambitions, we need short-term action on consolidation in underlying infrastructure markets (e.g. cloud compute) and we need an urgent, holistic view of what critical national infrastructure consists of.
  • Third, sovereign capability must mean capability across the nation. We already have fantastic centres of excellence for compound semiconductors in Wales and for satellite communications in the North East. We will build genuine national capability in telecoms when we spread that capability across the whole country. 
  • And, finally, at the heart of it: robust Government capacity to help build robust sovereign capability. We need robust Government action to protect our security and sovereign capability. We have not yet seen it. To enforce sweeping new rules for investment control and for telecoms security, we need capable government (e.g. increased Ofcom resourcing, given its vast expansion of role over time) and we need coordination (across BEIS, Cabinet Office and DCMS, given their large, disparate powers over telecoms and security). 

Guest blog by Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central. She currently undertakes the roles of Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), and Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport). You can follow Chi on Twitter here.

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