It is too late for the UK to create a domestic 5G vendor to rival Huawei but there are other opportunities to become less dependent on “high risk” vendors, telecommunications experts have said.

“I’m not sure if catching up with 5G is possible, but there are other opportunities there beyond traditional vendors,” said Dimitra Simeonidou, professor of high performance networks at the University of Bristol, speaking at the first evidence session of the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure.

That could include new hardware architectures and software possibilities, she said.

“That’s a very interesting proposition for the UK, because I do think we have skills of software development in the UK that can actually bring us into a leadership position. But we have to see the whole vendor story in very different way – and it’s an evolving story right now.”

In January Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave telcos the green light to use 5G infrastructure technology made by Chinese tech giant Huawei and other “high risk” vendors in the “non-core” parts of the UK’s 5G network.

The decision highlighted a global market dominated by three players – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – as well as a lack of a homegrown alternative to supply the technology.

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“To develop a full telco vendor that catches up with what is happening needs enormous investment on the R&D, billons per year, for a very long period of time,” said Simeonidou.

Matthew Evans, director of markets at techUK, told the committee that it is “hard to imagine” how the UK could create a domestic 5G vendor without “causing such a significant delay to the rollout of 5G… that it would be untenable”.

The next generation of cellular technology offers higher speeds, increased reliability and ultra-low latency. This has the potential to transform industries such as manufacturing, robotics and driverless cars.

“It’s an evolution in terms of technology but I think a revolution in terms of impact this technology can have,” said Evans.

While the UK may have missed the boat on a direct rival to Huawei, there are other ways it could compete in the telecommunications market, said Simeonidou and Evans.

One possibility is for the UK to explore OpenRAN technology, a vendor-neutral approach to telecommunications. This would see companies develop specific parts and software within the entire technology stack that are interoperable, rather than one vendor building every aspect.

Evans described it as “breaking apart the monolithic architectures we currently have with vendors”.

While this approach is “really promising”, Evans cautioned that it is “not a quick fix by any stretch of the imagination”.

OpenRAN currently accounts for less than 1% of global telco sales, said Evans.

The feasibility of OpenRAN approach could be assessed at testbeds in the UK, such as the one currently taking place in Bristol, the two experts said.

“A national telecoms lab, which would be pioneering for the UK, would help diversify the supply chain but over the medium to long term,” added Evans.

UK Huawei rival: Is OpenRAN the solution?

OpenRAN is supported by the Telecom Infra Project, a non-profit formed in 2016 to champion a more collaborative approach to telecommunications.

Attilio Zani, executive director at the Telecom Infra Project, told the committee that a shift to OpenRAN would make it easier to remove vendors that become “high risk” from the network, as opposed to costly “rip and replace” approaches.

He added that existing propositions, such as the creation of a UK version of ARPA, are welcome but that more needs to be done to help nurture new vendors to help diversify the network.

“I think there needs to be a regulatory construct that is pro-innovation and supporters the mobile operators who operate in the UK to benefit from an environment in which they can drive forward their tests and trials and actually take those to commercial launch perhaps a lot sooner than they otherwise would have,” he said.

“I think the feasibility of a home-grown vendor that covers all of the stack is hard to see,” Evans added.

“I think what Open RAN does is as well as allowing more innovation [and] potentially more security within the network as whole – certainly more resilience of suppliers – is you could see UK companies may be able to develop the expertise, the specialisation, in one part of that software stack. Certainly, there you can see UK companies who could do that.”

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