You do it to yourself you do

We have sailed into waters that we are struggling to navigate.

The telco sector, by arguing that 5G would be critical to national prestige, competitiveness and future technological capability left itself open to the political situation we are now seeing. 

Today, the UK Government decides to what extent the UK’s mobile operators may purchase and deploy equipment from Chinese manufacturers, mainly Huawei, to build their 5G networks. The argument has been prolonged and often confused, muddied as it is by the fact that it encompasses technical, economic, security and ethical considerations, as well as raw geo-politics. 

Although the UK is perhaps the hottest arena right at the moment, Germany has been involved in a similar lengthy debate, one that has divided political parties and uncovered claims of secret lobbying. France has made a special law that proposes any equipment is given government approval. The EU has been pushed to create policies that can balance “concerns” with an overall strategy for the bloc’s trade and security relationships with China and the US.

Many in the telco sector have grown increasingly frustrated by how the debate has played out. No need to trot out all the canards and counter-canards here. If you are reading this piece the chances are you are well aware of them. But at heart what we have seen is what subject matter [X] experts see whenever the general media-political nexus turn its attentions to [X]. It never ends well – whether in science, medicine, philosophy or whatever. “No, no, no” cry those immersed in the sector, “that’s not how it is at all. How can you argue this when you seem to lack an understanding of even the basics.” 

We may, actually, have started the fire

But we must address the fact that the telco sector itself – the mobile operators, the vendors and many in the specialist media and analyst space as well – are responsible for why we are here. Overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, “we” made the case that 5G was different, and that has had a direct effect.

Just as importantly, it made 5G capability a proxy for a country’s overall technological status. To be “winning” in 5G was to be winning in technology generally.

Put your hand up if you have heard (and if you want to be extra honest, said or written yourself) any of the following. 5G would connect many billions of things, or even “everything”, in ways that will change the world around us. It would enable “use cases” and experiences that we cannot even conceive of yet. 5G’s connectivity would enable the fourth industrial revolution, transforming the following industries: manufacturing, automotive, health, media and entertainment, transport, utilities. 

Telco lobbyists argued directly that countries that got to 5G first would unlock the benefits of this transformation first, and would also stay ahead of others. For example, countries that transformed their manufacturing sectors the earliest would unlock GDP and productivity gains that latecomers would unable to access. This gave rise to the idea of a race to 5G. 

Just as importantly, it made 5G capability a proxy for a country’s overall technological status. To be “winning” in 5G was to be winning in technology generally. The prior example often given was that the USA’s lead in LTE [itself a questionable assertion in any case] directly led to the rise of the Valley-led app economy, and the dominance in the tech sector of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and then Netflix, Uber and the others. 

So this idea of 5G as a geo-political race with winners and losers became pervasive. Governments did not want to be or to seem left behind.  

By pushing the delivery of this shopping list as critical to national prestige, productivity and competitiveness, operators had created a problem for themselves.

Telco lobbyists realised that they could use this to pressure for several long term goals, all of which pre-existed 5G. To make sure a country gets to 5G, and therefore doesn’t lose out in this race, Governments should quickly unlock lots of further spectrum, should ease planning laws and restrictions, should enable in-market operator consolidation, should enable LTE and 5G operation in unlicensed bands, and should regulate telcos on a like-for-like basis with internet-based players. 

But by pushing the delivery of this shopping list as critical to national prestige, productivity and competitiveness, operators had created a problem for themselves.

Hang on, said many in the body politic. If 5G is so critical, if we must act so that it can do all these things that you say it can, then surely we must also be very careful about whose equipment we use. These networks, essential now to the operation of our transport, manufacturing, health, utility and public service sectors, will surely be strategically important. Perhaps we don’t want to have them built, wholly or partly, upon equipment provided by companies that are legally submissive to a Government that we don’t trust and/or regard as actively hostile. 

The mobile industry, bouncing along on a nice breeze and high fiveG-ing itself for its brilliance, had somehow strayed into a much rougher neighbourhood. And we are still there.

Or maybe it was always burning after all

If “we” had taken the hype out of 5G five years ago, then perhaps things would have been different. If 5G had been presented as “just another G”, one that offered a decent improvement to overall speeds and capacities in the mobile network, and that might in time give rise to or augment some interesting uses within some industries, then would we still be having these arguments?

Perhaps. After all, the “Huawei” issue had been smouldering through the deployment of 4G at the beginning of the 2010s, and even earlier in the fixed side of the industry since 2000s network transformation projects such as BT’s 21CN. 

Huawei was already banned in the USA [effectively] and Australia before 5G came along, and the UK already has a specially operated security centre that inspects Huawei code before it is put into “production” in the UK’s networks. A former UK Government advisor claimed yesterday that he had directly been told of security objections to a plan to use Huawei to get mobile coverage on the London Underground in 2011. So perhaps, however 5G was positioned, we would have ended up here. 

Huawei might also still have had its disputed “lead” in 5G capability, and its undisputed lead in price. And it would still have been a lot easier for those operators with Huawei 4G networks to upgrade to Huawei 5G. All of these three points have been key reasons for operator resistance to restrictions on Huawei. So making 5G itself less “hypey” still wouldn’t have decreased the importance of Huawei to many operators deploying 5G.

Plus it is worth noting that if 5G had been presented in lower key terms, then the researchers would not have unlocked the R&D dollars, the operators would not have had a potential path to new revenues, and vendors struggling with their own flat revenues would not have had the next line of products to sell to their customers.

So try to fight it

Yet, as we head to MWC2020, it is worth remembering that the more the industry self-presents as ubiquitous (Intelligent Connectivity Everywhere is this year’s event slogan), as critical to achieving UN SDGs, as essential to industrial transformation and to national performance, the more it will get dragged into debates such as the ones we are seeing. 

Discussions have been wrestled away from the expert base and dominated by those who understand political messaging and processes much better

In this debate, the discussions have been wrestled away from the expert base and dominated by those who understand political messaging and processes much better. The odd one of “us” popping up on a news programme to “well actually” for 30 seconds doesn’t achieve much, although it’s a useful picture for your Twitter profile.

If you are working in lobbying, PR or technical or business strategy at a vendor, a telco or any of the industry bodies that “represent” the industry, then these questions should form a key aspect of your new lobbying and PR focus. How are you going to explain your requirements and the benefits you can offer when competing voices are stronger, more ruthless and better at this than you, and are prepared to push back against you rather than welcome you. Huawei aside, this is the realm you now inhabit – in part as a result of your own actions – so how are you going to play in it?

Operators (and the industry groups such as the GSMA) should ask if they are independent enough to make their case in good faith. Are they commercially beholden to one of the actors in the debate, so that they have lost credibility as an impartial actor? Will this happen again?

Network strategists should also ask themselves if they are too immersed in a single vendor – financially or technically – so that they can see no easy way out when something like this occurs? Should they be introducing a supplier diversity metric as an act of basic hygiene?

Finally, physician heal thyself: media and analysts should ask themselves if they too are free to speak independently – or are they also too dependent on the goodwill and money of the very companies they are expected to analyse, report on and comment on? Let’s be clear. Huawei’s money has propped up the conference, analyst and media space for years now. It is naive to suggest that the sector can then negotiate around that entirely impartially. And that is not healthy either, if “we” want to take a fuller part in this debate, and in the next one.