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Government launches £10 million bid to make UK ‘a world leader in telecoms R&D’

The DCMS has announced it will hand out up to £10 million to whoever it picks to run a new R&D type unit called UKTIN, in order to promote innovation in telecoms.

“The UK will be a world leader in telecoms research and development under plans for a new government-funded organisation dedicated to boosting innovation in the country’s telecoms supply chain,” begins the announcement from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport this morning, to herald the arrival of a new organisation that eventually is supposed to aid and fund UK telecoms innovation.

The UK Telecoms Innovation Network is described as an ‘information point’ for telecoms firms seeking funding or access to testing facilities. The announcement today isn’t about the exact details of that funding, but instead it is the launch of a ‘competition’ for organisations to apply for up to £10 million to run UKTIN on the government’s behalf. In terms of specifically which organisations can apply to do this, it is open to: ‘applications from consortia with two or more members with funding available for UK based organisations.’

Applicants are asked to submit two bids – one for £5 million and one for £10 million, and the government will decide on which the winner gets. The deadline for applications is May 20th 2022, and there will be a briefing event on April 7th for anyone interested. The DCMS says the consortium will be set up by September 2022.

“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, said Digital Infrastructure Minister Julia Lopez. “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.”

One of UKTIN’s roles will be to create a database of information on R&D funding in the public and private sector, but that seems more about measuring what is already there rather than increasing it.

While the announcement is limited to the search for people to run UKTIN, rather than about how much money will subsequently be made available to telco innovators, it does refer to the Government’s £250 million pot of cash announced in December 2020. This is supposed to ‘lower barriers for firms seeking to enter the UK telecoms supply chain – which will increase competition, drive up the quality of products and services and reduce the UK’s current reliance on a small number of international suppliers.’ How much of this will be funnelled through UKTIN has not been revealed, or explicitly stated as the plan.

Its objectives are admirable enough – to stimulate innovation in the UK mobile and fixed telecoms industry. It mirrors moves in the private sector by firms such as Vodafone, who last April announced an Open RAN Test and Integration Lab at its Newbury technology campus.

There is a lot of lofty talk about competition and innovation in telecoms, which these days is essentially code for Open RAN. But whether or not UKTIN ends up being a genuine driver for innovation, let alone making the UK ‘a world leader in telecoms research and development’ as it claims, will depend largely on how much money it is prepared to throw at it.

The devil is in the details here, and we don’t have many. There is up to £10 million on the table for a consortium to come in and run the thing, but whether that represents the entirety of the funds or just set up costs, is not clear. Funding is explicitly mentioned in the announcement – which might be intended to come from that £10 million (or £5 million), or it could tap into the £250 million pot the government previously announced, which was also mentioned but not nailed down exactly how it relates. At one point UKTIN is described as an ‘information point for telecoms companies looking to access funding’ – this could even just mean helping them interact with investors in the private sector.

If it does turn out to be about spending public funds, it feels natural to support the idea of the man sliding some dosh over to the telecoms industry if you find yourself within, or writing about, said industry. All we’d point out is that the telecoms industry specifically is expensive – very expensive. It involves satellites, huge towers, and drilling under the earth. And to get a foothold in it, let alone innovate in a meaningful way, will cost huge sums of money in logistics and research for someone, at some point down the line.

Perhaps UKTIN will facilitate that on the scale that would be required it to meet its rhetoric of making the UK a world leader in telecoms innovation. If not, its easy to see this as another example of government superficially cheerleading for Open RAN, which can feel like as much to do with politics than making the UK a world leader in anything.


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