Filling the 5G gap left by the Huawei ban is going to be expensive

The UK government has pledged £250 million to diversify the country's 5G supply chain in the wake of a ban on Huawei's equipment.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

To protect the safety of future 5G networks, the UK government has committed a £250 million ($333 million) investment that will be used to find new ways to end the country's reliance on a select group of network providers – a group that has shrunk even more since one of the industry players, Huawei, was banned from supplying any of the nation's 5G infrastructure.  

In this year's spending review unveiled by chancellor Rishi Sunak, the investment was pitched as a "commitment to building a secure and resilient 5G network," of which £50 million ($66 million) will be made available as early as next year. 

In parallel, the UK government published a new national infrastructure strategy specifying that the £250 million budget will go towards ensuring that the country's 5G networks are not over-reliant on a single supplier. Investments will be made on the basis of recommendations made in an up-coming strategy on 5G supply-chain diversification that is yet to be published. 

SEE: Hiring Kit: 5G Wireless System Engineer (TechRepublic Premium)

Among those working on the strategy feature is ex-BT CEO Ian Livingston, as well as representatives from Vodafone and Openreach. The task force was appointed earlier this year, just weeks after the UK government ruled, on the basis of security concerns, that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei should be entirely removed from the country's 5G network infrastructure by 2027. 

With the global market for communications currently dominated by only three vendors – Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia – the UK's ban has reduced the options of telecommunications suppliers to only two major network providers. Leading telecoms company BT, for example, has already shared the majority of its 5G network between partnerships with Nokia and Ericsson, to comply with the government's new requirements. 

Kester Mann, analyst at CCS Insights, told ZDNet: "This raises concerning questions about vendor diversity as operators become reliant on a seemingly ever-diminishing number of leading suppliers. Vendor choice is important for a healthy ecosystem: it can spur innovation and help bring down costs." 

The task force was formed as a result of the ban, and the group's prospective telecoms diversification strategy is hoped to include ways to ensure that telecoms companies do not have to rely on individual vendors to supply equipment in their networks. 

The potential measures that will feature in the strategy include attracting new vendors into the UK market. This is likely to be enabled by stronger investment targeting research and development for new technologies that can lower the barrier to entry to the market, such as OpenRAN.  

OpenRAN technologies can help operators cut the cost of building new networks thanks to vendor-neutral hardware, and software defined on common standards. In other words, the technology decouples hardware and software, and in theory opens the market to a more diverse set of smaller vendors.  

SEE: Huawei ban: Big fines for telecoms companies if they ignore new security standards

By pumping an extra quarter of a billion pounds into research, among other things, the government is hoping that solutions will be found soon to counter the current power balance in the telecoms industry. A country-wide reliance on only two vendors can pose huge security issues, and can be technically problematic in the case of equipment failures. 

The announcement came off the back of a new telecommunications security bill that was presented to Parliament earlier this month, and provided the government with unprecedented powers to enforce security rules in the telecoms industry. The new law includes the ban on Huawei's 5G equipment, and stipulates that companies are liable to pay hefty fines if they fail to stick to the new regulation.   

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