Lord Livingston to lead government's search for Huawei 5G alternatives

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The government has confirmed that former BT CEO Lord Ian Livingston will chair a new taskforce that will devise strategies to diversify the UK’s telecoms equipment supply chain.

Lord Livingston, who was at BT when it handed Huawei its first major European contract back in 2005, will lead a panel that includes figures in the telecoms industry, cybersecurity and academia.

Openreach CEO Clive Selley, Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty and Professor Rahim Tafazolli, head of the Institute for Communications systems (ICS) at the University of Surrey are also all on board.

UK government taskforce

The formation of the taskforce has been prompted by a reversal in government policy in July that will see Huawei banned from participating in the rollout of 5G networks in Britain on national security grounds.

Under the new rules, operators will be banned from buying telecoms equipment from Huawei by the end of the year and will also have to strip out existing 5G kit made by the company by 2027. This is despite the fact that no evidence has ever been produced to support claims of wrongdoing, while the company has persistently denied any such allegations.

Operators have reluctantly accepted the new reality but the government itself has suggested the U-turn could delay 5G rollout by up to three years and add £2 billion of additional costs to operators. Ericsson and Nokia would have a virtual duopoly in the market for radio 5G kit, leading to concerns about competition, innovation, and supply.

With 5G central to the government’s economic plans – especially after Coronavirus – it is eager to minimise disruption.

The taskforce will look to resolve these issues and ensure the resiliency that Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman believes is a prerequisite for “world class” telecoms networks.

Specifically, the group will influence government legislation and frameworks would ensure operators have access to the innovative equipment they require without being constrained to a small pool of suppliers or to ‘High Risk Vendors’ like Huawei.

Samsung and NEC have been suggested as potential suppliers in the past, while the government is also keen to promote smaller, more innovative companies such as those building equipment based on Open RAN standards.

“Today, we have put together a telecoms diversification taskforce featuring members from industry and academia,” he told the Connected Britain event. “I am delighted that Lord Ian Livingston will come on board as chair. I truly believe [the taskforce] will deliver lasting change.

“We at DCMS have done some good work on diversification but we wanted a taskforce to go to genuine experts. It is very important we have a strategy that’s implemented as quickly as possible. We’ve had a lot of engagement with Lord Livingston over the summer and chair and the plan has to be to move from strategy to implementation. But we also want to make sure we don’t rush down a route that isn’t the right one to be taking.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.