Phoenix from the Ashes – Future of British Telecoms

This article first appeared in 5G Radar.

The recent decision by the UK Government on Huawei has put into sharp focus the significant strategic price the UK is now paying for its ‘hands off’ market driven approach to the communications industry. The move to focus more on the UK’s own industrial policy and diversity of supply is certainly the right one for the country. Technology developed here in the UK leads to higher quality jobs resulting in increased GDP per person – UK generated wealth and productivity is good for all.

But is this achievable? Absolutely. Recent coverage would indicate the thriving telecoms ecosystem that once existed in the UK is a somewhat distant memory for some. But let’s not forget, UK developed technology led the world in the ‘80s with the likes of System X, a world-leading digital switching technology. This technology underpinned the UK Telecom’s network and industry with GEC, STC and Plessey Edge Lane in Liverpool becoming the largest manufacturing site for System X products. Unfortunately, as UK networks looked to exploit cheaper (foreign government subsidised) technology, there was a lack of will/strategy to further support the UK technology base.

Now more than ever, we need to ensure the UK communications technology industry is put firmly back on the roadmap and is a core part of the UK’s industrial strategy. A strategy that should include increased funding for relevant technology and product development, as well as procurement policies that favour local equipment, software, and services over overseas alternatives.

We are already starting to see further commitment from the UK Government in recognising that leading-edge technologies exist in-country – technologies such as millimetre wave (mmWave) that could form the backbone of the UK’s 5G strategy. Given the integral role the Plessey Edge Lane site once played in the UK’s once mighty telecoms industry, it’s great to see this being revived. A recently announced initiative is the new £7.2 million Liverpool 5G Create project from UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) – a great example of a ‘Phoenix from the Ashes’, reigniting a telecoms technology revival.

Is OpenRAN the answer?

It is also interesting to note that discussions around OpenRAN has gained traction following the UK Government’s decision to remove Huawei from the mobile network – OpenRAN being a mechanism to allow UK companies to participate in the future mobile ecosystem.

OpenRAN refers to an initiative within the mobile communications industry which allows interfaces to be ‘opened up’ between the various constituent sub-systems that make up the mobile network.

For example, the radio network is typically delivered via the base station towers and the core switching equipment which connects to those base stations usually via backhaul connection of some description like fibre or wireless. And of course, the switching network then relays the information to the appropriate recipients on the fixed or mobile networks elsewhere.

However, currently, those interfaces are ‘closed’ which means that an operator such as Vodafone, EE or BT would have to buy a complete system from one vendor, be it Huawei, Samsung or Ericsson. OpenRAN allows operators to choose from smaller UK vendors, of which there are several, who may not be able to deliver a complete Tier 1 product range but can provide interesting technologies and sub-systems which interconnect using OpenRAN and therefore, allow operators to pick and mix from different sources.

To disaggregate that ecosystem, OpenRAN allows those different vendors who have specific equipment in the radio, core switching or software space to interact and interoperate with one another in the same way as the PC and ethernet world. It is for this very reason that it is being considered as an attractive proposition. Interestingly, Japan’s operator Rakuten Mobile has a 5G OpenRAN network which some operators are already looking to take advantage of.  Most recently, we saw an announcement from Telefonica articulating its approach to OpenRAN through its partnership with Rakuten Mobile to jointly develop the technology along with 5G core networks and supporting operational systems.

What is compelling for us as a business is having the ability to connect to the OpenRAN interfaces for the backhaul connection. Our role is to provide an efficient way of using gigabit rate mmWave to connect between the front end 5G NR small cells for example and the core network. Notably, we are already seeing interest from mobile operators in using our equipment in that regard. This is due to the uniqueness of our mmWave offering. It is the only product in the world that operates across the full licence exempt band: 57-71 GHz. Particularly the top end of that band, from 64-71 GHz, is low loss meaning we can deliver multi-gigabit carrier-grade performance at ranges of up to 3 km in a small, low power form factor using phased arrays to make the connections dynamic and easy to install.

These attributes make it very interesting to mobile operators where deploying 5G NR small cells requires fibre to be run or the deployment of more expensive and more power hungry backhaul equipment. As such, there is a compelling discussion to be had with regards to both OpenRAN as well as the potential of mmWave technology in supporting this initiative.

Hi-tech warfare

The increasing importance of communications within ‘Information Warfare’ in the defence sector is seen through recent statements from the UK Government. The UK’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace was quoted in a Sunday Times article stating that “we desperately need to reform and modernise our armed forces if we are to meet emerging threats” and signalled a warning shot to service chiefs that “there will be a shift away from static ground forces towards aerospace equipment such as drones.”

Current Tactical Communications in the UK Military is based on the ‘Bowman’ system which dates back to the 1990s and operates within the HF-UHF bands, typically providing a maximum usable data rate of 500 kbps per radio. This is now being updated through the Morpheus programme together with the use of 4G LTE to increase the user rates to 10’s Mbps – as can be delivered through today’s generation of commercial mobile devices.

However, military applications demand increased resilience (ability to operate in the presence of active jamming); security (ability to minimise eavesdropping through encryption) and stealth (reduced radio signature to avoid detection by ESM systems). These additional requirements have historically led to the development of custom radio platforms leading to long and expensive equipment procurement cycles.

The use of mmWave communications technology is also being considered for tactical military applications as the combination of active beamsteering, wide channel width and dynamic mesh networking deliver a compelling solution for next generation 5G gigabit grade tactical communication networks. It remains to be seen if ORAN has a role to play in such networks but the demand for military use cases is clear – and Blu Wireless is already active in the development of mmWave communication platforms for the next generation of military communication systems.

Only time will tell as to whether we’ll see a rebirth of a thriving telecoms market here in the UK, but one thing is for sure – we have the capability, expertise and drive to become a dominant force once more.  The biggest challenge is ensuring we are forthright in our decision making and are investing in the innovative ‘home-grown’ technologies available to us.