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UK virtue signals to US over telecoms plurality and security

now open sign neon

The UK government has announced a bunch of aspirations to do with mobile networks that are apparently designed to show the US it’s being a good ally.

As if to illustrate what a dilettante it is when it comes to the telecoms dark arts, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport issued a press release ostensibly about security that led with a commitment to switch off 2G and 3G by 2033. The more substantial announcement, and the real story, concerns OpenRAN, which was buried halfway down the lengthy release.

To be fair, there is some overlap, in so much as an obligation to support legacy cellular tech restricts the number of potential OpenRAN vendors, especially those relatively new to the RAN game such as Samsung. But the back-to-front nature of the message served to add to the impression that the government doesn’t really understand telecoms and is just doing what it thinks will please the Americans, as it did with the Huawei ban.

The DCMS announcement was headed: ‘Digital Secretary announces new measures to boost UK telecoms security ahead of first US visit on tech cooperation’. The opening paragraph was a study in non sequitur incoherence: ‘2G and 3G mobile networks will be phased out of use in the UK by 2033 as part of measures to increase the security of telecoms supply chains and to support a smooth transition to faster mobile networks.’

“5G technology is already revolutionising people’s lives and businesses – connecting people across the UK with faster mobile data and making businesses more productive,” said Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries, who has been in the job for less than two months and had no prior telecoms industry experience we’re aware of.

“Today we are announcing a further £50 million to put the UK at the forefront of mobile connectivity and to make sure our telecoms networks are safe and secure now and in the future. We can only do this through stronger international collaboration and I will be meeting with our US allies today as we strengthen our ties on technology.”

That 50 mil involves some inevitable creative accounting, with £36m of it representing the culmination of the Future RAN Competition (FRANC), which was launched in July. The rest is being thrown at Sonic Labs, an Ofcom R&D initiative that has allowed the government to launder public money in a vaguely OpenRANish way for over a year.

UK operators are making a public show of supporting this announcement but their joint statement with the government seems tepid at best. It leads with an ‘ambition’ for a third of UK mobile network traffic to be carried by ‘open and interoperable RAN architectures’ by 2030. So there’s no firm commitment or apparent consequence for failing to meet this ambition. Furthermore pretty much all Ericsson and Nokia RAN tech will probably qualify under that definition by then so it’s fairly meaningless.

‘We recognise that mobile operators are currently taking forward plans to introduce and expand their 5G networks – while also undertaking work to extend coverage to the most rural parts of the UK,’ continued the joint statement. ‘Therefore this ambition is not a mandate and instead realising it will require partnership and collaboration between government, mobile operators and the wider telecoms industry.

‘We understand that in order to reach this ambition, there is more to be done to develop the performance, economics, and security of new RAN solutions so that they become competitive and viable for scale deployments. Therefore, joint activity will include – investment in the research and development, deployment, and adoption of open network technologies, creating the right market environment to foster and encourage innovation, and international partnerships that bring together learning from across the global supply chain.’

Great. You can see all the winners of the FRANC lottery here, which include Vodafone and Virgin Media O2, so you can see why they’re keen to be onboard. “The development of high performance 5G Open and Diversified RAN solutions is crucial to the continued rollout and densification of 5G networks across the UK,” said Jeanie York, VMO2 CTO. “I’m very proud of the project team who worked tirelessly to deliver the winning submission, and we look forward to working with our partners to bring this to life alongside the DCMS.”

Not everyone is quite so effusive in their support for this raft of announcements. “I have nothing against OpenRAN,” Telecoms Analyst John Strand, (who recently published a report debunking perceived OpenRAN myths) told Telecoms.com. “However, we want to create transparency at the O-RAN Alliance and some of its members have pushed back. I am glad the British government is coming to the same conclusion.

“They show they understand that OpenRAN only supports 4G and 5G and therefore it is not a like-for-like commercial alternative for classic 5G networks. The fact is that OpenRAN does not support 2G and 3G, which they admit will be around for some time.

“They have ambitions regarding the quantity of data that will go through truly open and interoperable networks but it is an ambition and there is no commitment. I don’t believe that they will reach that ambition and not even a number close to it.“

All this vaguely aspirational stuff around OpenRAN amounts to both a holding position, designed to show the US our heart’s in the right place, and an admission that OpenRAN is not a short term solution to anything other than gesture politics. The private sector will presumably take the taxpayer cash but essentially do what it wants, while giving the government occasional vague progress reports that it can turn into political capital.

Short of the regulation required of an industry with such high barriers to entry, the public sector has no business in telecoms. Arbitrary, vague targets in the distant future are just as meaningless in this context as they are after every COP summit and nobody thinks the government has any competence when it comes to picking commercial winners. Still, the Americans are doing it, so we’d better go through the motions too if we want to stay in their good books.

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One comment

  1. Avatar Michael Gove 08/12/2021 @ 3:36 pm

    The UK has had enough of experts.

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