Although there was very little said during the Supply Chain Review statement yesterday, there are some interesting developments worth keeping an eye on.
Speaking to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Wright did as most expected he would and dodged the Huawei decision. Although we were promised a decision by March, the slippery politician has managed to create enough breathing room to get him through to September.
Despite some being disappointed by a lack of clarity on the competitive landscape for UK communications infrastructure, there were a few takeaways.
There’s no avoiding interference from Transatlantic geo-politics
Every politician will tell you decisions are made dependent on what is best for the British people alone, but it is impossible to avoid the US here. The White House and its aggressive policies are causing havoc around the world, including here in the UK.
Fundamentally, without a decision on Huawei there is no clarity for investment and progress into the digital economy will falter.
Wright said a decision on Huawei would be made irrespective of the political influences of the US, but US interference is unavoidable.
“The hon. Gentleman has said that he is concerned to ensure that this should be a decision about the interests of the UK and not the priorities of the US Administration, and I understand that,” Wright said in response to the suggestion the US has too much influence from Tom Watson, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
“I can give him the assurance that decisions we take will be decisions in the best interests of the United Kingdom, but he knows that this is a hugely interconnected sector and it simply is not possible to make sensible judgments about telecommunications without recognising those interconnections.”
With Huawei being placed on the Entity List the performance, resilience and security of its products might be impacted in the future. Wright has said he will not make a decision on Huawei until he has all the facts, and the relationship between China and the US is a huge factor in this.
Kicking the can to avoid irritating the new boss
Despite there being pressure from influential Parliamentary groups and the telco industry to make a decision, it was always highly unlikely Wright was going to say anything until his new boss has taken residence in No.10 Downing Street.
Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister and he will want to put his own mark on proceedings. The Huawei decision is an important one, not only for UK 5G infrastructure, but because it will impact the relationship with the US. BoJo has already shown himself as somewhat of a pet of the President and will most likely want to nurture this relationship as only he knows how.
Wright does not want to jump the gun on making a decision and potentially irritating the new boss, especially when there is a potential promotion around the corner.
David Guake, the Justice Secretary, has resigned. Education Minister Anne Milton has gone. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has publicly stated he would quit if BoJo won. Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development, formally announced his resignation over Twitter at 11.18am. And finally, it is highly likely Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, BoJo’s opponent for PM, will be shifted elsewhere.
“The reality is that this statement is just a lot of words to confirm further delay. Why are the decisions now being left in the gift of the new Prime Minister? Is this just another case of putting the Tory party before the country?” SNP MP Alan Brown questioned.
As one of the few politicians who managed to remain neutral during the proceedings, Wright could find himself heading up a new department before too long.
Security framework will make UK more secure
This is perhaps the most encouraging snippet to emerge from a relatively shallow statement overall; security requirements will be heightened for everyone.
“Fundamentally, we must make a decision on the basis of what is in our security interests, but he is also right that if we were to focus solely on one company or country, we would miss the broader important point that our telecoms supply chain must be resilient and secure, regardless of where equipment comes from, because risk may transfer from place to place and our population is entitled to expect that the approach we take puts security at its heart, wherever the equipment comes from,” Wright stated.
Although there are few details available regarding the new security requirements, Wright has suggested there will be a more stringent framework set in place and on-going assessments to ensure standards are being maintained. This will be applicable to every supplier, irrelevant of where they have come from.
To start with, this will be a voluntary scheme for the telcos, but soon enough it will be cemented in place through legislation. This takes time, but it is encouraging that the Government recognises threats can come from anywhere, everyone has a globalised supply chain and cybercriminals are becoming much more capable.
If policies have the position of 100% secure is impossible and everyone is a potential threat, risk mitigation levels should be set higher. This is the best possible means to achieve a resilient and secure network, capable of dealing with threats irrelevant as to their origin or intention.
Vendor diversification is nothing but a smokescreen
It might sound like a wonderful plug, but suggesting the UK is going to encourage diversification in the supply chain is nothing but a distraction to attract PR points for DCMS.
“In addition, we must have a competitive, sustainable and diverse supply chain if we are to drive innovation and reduce the risk of dependency on individual suppliers,” Wright said.
“The Government will therefore pursue a targeted diversification strategy, supporting the growth of new players in the parts of the network that pose security and resilience risks. We will promote policies that support new entrants and the growth of smaller firms.”
During the statement, Wright promised work will be done to enable smaller and more innovative players to contribute to the 5G euphoria. This sounds good and, in theory, addresses a long-standing problem in the telco world, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The telco industry has been attempting to create a more diverse supply chain for years, as well as adapting procurement models to ensure smaller companies can weave through the red-tape maze. There has been little progress to date and intervention from DCMS is unlikely to reap any material changes.
You also have to wonder whether Wright is tackling the challenge head-on. Wright pointed to funding which has been directed towards the West Midlands and other innovation hubs, however this is not the problem which the telco industry has been facing. The limited supply chain is most harmful in places like the access network or core. This is where there are so few suppliers and competition has been impacting the cost of deployment.
Wright might be encouraging diversification and growth for start-ups, but don’t be fooled by this statement; he is not directly tackling the biggest competition challenge the industry faces.
Long-overdue legislative overhaul and Ofcom empowerment
The legislative and regulatory landscape has needed an update for years and Wright is promising one. Not only would this put the security framework into law, it will also ensure Ofcom has the right powers to be effective in the digital economy.
“We will pursue legislation at the earliest opportunity to provide Ofcom with stronger powers to allow for the effective enforcement of the telecoms security requirements and to establish stronger national security backstop powers for Government,” Wright said.
Until the new legislation is put in place, Government and Ofcom will work with all telecoms operators to secure adherence to the new requirements on a voluntary basis.”
Many of the rules which govern the telecoms and technology industry have been written for a bygone era. This is an outcome which is largely unavoidable when you consider the speed at which progress develops nowadays. However, rules need to be brought into the 21st century.
Legislation will offer the Government more influence over commercial communications infrastructure while Ofcom will have its teeth sharpened. It’s a long-overdue update.
Not much said, but potential to progress
Overall, there was little said by Wright in terms of material progress, but there is enough evidence the UK is creeping forward toward contextual relevance. We saw hints of progress yesterday, but realistically, the new Prime Minister and his administration will dictate evolution over the coming months and years.