On Tuesday 6 December, PICTFOR hosted their final event of the year, focusing on diversifying the UK’s tech supply chains.
The roundtable featured insights from Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, Julia Lopez MP, Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah MP, Head of Telecoms at techUK, Sophie James, Business Strategy Director at BT, Mark Henry. The event was chaired by the Chair of Building Digital UK and PICTFOR Industry Chair, Simon Blagden CBE.
Please see below for minutes of the session.
Simon Blagden CBE provided opening remarks, welcoming all PICTFOR members, Vice-Chairs and attendees from the wider tech community and thanking them for attending the event. He remarked on how the increasing affordability and reliance on technology, combining with conflict in Europe and other international events, has changed how countries and entities from within the technology sector view the supply chain. The Chair then called on the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure, Julia Lopez MP to speak.
The Minister began by giving a short overview of telecoms supply chain issues, noting her role in the commitment to the roll out of gigabit capable broadband, with the aim of 85% of premises to be covered by 2025 alongside a wireless infrastructure strategy, to be launched early next year, to maximise the potential of wireless networks, such as 5G. She explained that this increased reliance and expansion of digital infrastructure requires more robust security. She cited the introduction the 2021 Telecommunications Security Act, noting the role this played in the removal of specific vendors from the UK’s wireless infrastructure while also highlighting our reliance on a small number of suppliers in the telecom space, requiring a diversification of the telecoms supply chain. She went on to say that since the Diversification Strategy was published, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have only further highlighted the need for diverse and robust supply chains. She then went on to list examples of the Government’s commitments to the diversification of tech supply chains, including the £250 million investment into a Research and Development fund to develop open network space technologies and the creation of a neutral testing facility, the UK telecoms lab. She also raised the shared ambition with the telecoms industry for one third of the network to be carried over Open RAN Networks by 2030 and the removal of barriers for new market entrants, in the form of switching off 2G and 3G by 2033, as further evidence of the Government’s commitment. She ended by noting the importance of the work of fellow attendees in this field but insisted there was more work to be done.
The Chair then introduced Head of Telecoms at techUK, Sophie James. Sophie notied that citizens consume services, not infrastructure. She also noted that investment in a functioning supply chain will aid operators in increasing the rollout pace of Project Gigabit. She added that the savings for operators from Open RAN are only possible if the investment in the platform is made in the right expertise. She went on to discuss how competition has increased, citing the impacts this can have on innovation in telecom supply chains. She reminded the panel of the importance of innovation in the mobile network sector and how high-quality mobile networks benefit UK consumers and the economy at large. She stressed techUK’s appreciation of the Diversification Strategy as a framing point for a wider approach to vendor diversity, adding that these commitments and investments sent serious signals to market, before heralding the importance of continued cooperation between academia, business and government to continue this trend of innovation. She closed by stating techUK’s excitement about the Government’s projects and commitments to diversifying tech supply chains and hoped that the UK could maintain support on both demand and supply sides.
Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah MP stressed that, in the past, tech supply chains have not received as much attention as they should have but that the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine have highlighted their importance. She went on to outline the next steps a Labour Government would take to diversify and build resilience within tech supply chains. She then set out the four goals of the Labour Party Industrial Strategy: delivering clean power by 2030, harnessing data for public good, caring for the future and building a resilient economy, with diverse tech supply chains being particularly pertinent to the latter. She explained how a lack of supply chain diversity can force businesses to stop or alter production, leading government to pay more to fix the problem than it would cost to previously prevent it, noting that Labour would set up a supply chain task force to review potential supply chain needs across key sectors to assess the vulnerability of supply chains to shocks. She stressed that in the wake of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, it is essential to fix the trading relationship with Europe and mentioned a wider ‘Allies First’ approach to supply chains amongst allied nations, including the USA, UK and the EU. This approach will highlight the importance of international standards to ensure supply chain diversification. She also raised the role of SMEs in diversifying supply chains, saying that a Labour Government intends to ensure they have a fairer chance to win public contracts to prevent development of monopolies, which do not foster resilient supply chains. She closed by stating that Labour believes in the state working in partnership with the private sector to diversify tech supply chains.
Following this, the Chair introduced Business Strategy Director at BT, Mark Henry. He began by echoing the sentiment of the previous speakers on the importance of supply chain diversity. He also welcomed the Government’s announcements of support in telecoms projects although noted that it is important to separate diversity in terms of choice of suppliers from the development of a UK supply chain for telecommunications infrastructure. In order to develop the UK’s supply chain for telecommunications infrastructure, the Government should seek out investment that will target innovation in the next wave of deployment in networks. He also remarked that BT is looking at technologies to invest in to develop the UK supply chain, before explaining that, in terms of choice of suppliers, there is a balance to be made between building the best possible network and taking a risk on new suppliers and emerging standards. He set out BT’s pragmatic approach to developing mature standards and new suppliers through participation with the Open RAN Telecom Infrastructure Project and O-RAN Alliance. He added that BT are working hard to develop relationships with new suppliers but also want to keep open minded about how that will develop. He then commented on the importance of resilience to deliver BT’s service to emergency services, noting that solutions to this required an industry wide approach. He closed by saying that in order to improve performance and competition, the industry should look to make developments in cost and sustainability, amongst other improvements.
The event chair then opened up the discussion to the roundtable, where the panel heard from Lord Holmes of Richmond, Good Things Foundation, Barclays Bank and others. Simon Blagden CBE then thanked all the speakers and attendees before closing the event.
You can catch up on the entire event below.