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March 22, 2022updated 24 Jun 2022 9:56am

Will new telecoms innovation network help make the UK a 5G leader?

As part of recommendations from the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce, DCMS launches a competition to grant funding to UK companies in telecommunications.

By Sophia Waterfield

A new network to encourage innovation in the UK telecoms sector has been launched by the government, with funding of up to £10m on offer for any organisation that wants to help run it. The UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN) is part of the government’s strategy to diversify suppliers and accelerate research and development (R&D) and make the UK a global telecoms leader. But analysts say there is much work to do to achieve this goal.

UK telecoms innovation
The government is banking on a new innovation network to help make the UK a 5G leader. (Photo by Liu Zhankun/China News Service via Getty Images)

According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the UKTIN will act as an information point for telecoms companies looking to access funding or testing facilities for R&D and opportunities to collaborate on developing new and improved technologies for UK mobile and broadband networks. It was part of the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce’s recommendations in its report from last year.

What is the UK Telecoms Innovation Network Competition?

Organisations can apply for up to £10m to establish and run the centre as part of a competition launched by the government. The chosen supplier and its partners will support innovators to scale up, develop their products, gain better access to the telecoms market as well as drive exports.

The government has also put a focus on Open RAN as part of the UKTIN. Open RAN is a set of open standards which allow companies to mix and match equipment from different suppliers, rather than having to rely on a single vendor when building or maintaining networks. According to the government, this technology “is considered crucial” to its £250m strategy to lower barriers for companies seeking to enter the UK telecoms supply chain.

“The UK Telecoms Innovation Network will be the first port of call for any telecoms company looking to access R&D funding and a matchmaker for firms looking to join forces on cutting-edge projects,” says Julia Lopez, digital infrastructure minister.

The UKTIN is expected to be up and running by the end of the year, with the winning consortium announced in the summer, says the DCMS.

Why is the UK Government launching UKTIN?

The launch of the UKTIN is part of a series of programmes the UK Government has launched in a bid to diversify the nation’s 5G networks. This follows its announcement in July 2020 that all 5G equipment from Chinese supplier Huawei would be removed from UK 5G networks by 2027 on national security grounds.

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“When it was announced that the government wanted to get Huawei kit out of the UK telecoms network, it wasn’t immediately clear how this was going to result in any sort of diversification at all,” Tony Cripps, principal analyst, transport and smart cities, public sector at GlobalData, told Tech Monitor. He explains that after Huawei, there is a very small pool of suppliers, dominated by Ericsson and Nokia. So the UK Government needed to do something to drive diversification.

Cripps says that Open RAN is the technology the government is looking to achieve this: "It does open the door to get more companies involved in the technology space than there would have been otherwise," he says, by essentially disaggregating software and hardware components in the network and making them vendor-neutral.

5G's projected economic impact for the UK is £40.74bn by 2030, according to a report from PwC. It is predicted to boost sectors such as healthcare, utilities, industrial manufacturing, financial services and more.

Is the UK a leader in telecoms?

Another focus in today's launch was the UK Government's desire to be a "leader" in the telecom sector.

"Ultimately this is about making the UK the best place in the world to develop rapid and seamless new technology for the digital networks that will power our economy well into the 21st century," says Lopez in the DCMS announcement.

However, at the moment this isn't an area that Cripps would consider the UK to be a leader in: "I don't really see the UK as a leader in 5G yet, [it] doesn't seem to be a hub of innovation in the 5G space."

This is why there is "an ever-increasing focus on home-grown technology," analyst Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight, told Tech Monitor. He explains that this focus means that the UK can reduce its reliance on overseas companies. This dependence on companies such as Huawei is one of the reasons Britain is longer seen as an innovator, he argues.

Now with the launch of UKTIN, Pescatore thinks that the government can ensure the "right ingredients are in place" for 5G services, including attracting the key creative and technical expertise required for creating secure next-generation networks. He says this should be at the heart of designing 5G networks, especially as the UK looks to reposition itself as a global hub for innovation in technology and connectivity.

Read more: 5G advances overshadowed by ongoing spectrum squabbles

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