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What will the Global Coalition on Telecommunications actually do?

The UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the US signed a telecoms pact in October which promises more collaboration on market issues. We spoke to law firm Linklaters about what it might involve.

Andrew Wooden

November 7, 2023

12 Min Read
What will the Global Coalition on Telecommunications actually do?
Blue Globe viewing from space at night with connections between cities. (World Map Courtesy of NASA: https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=55167)

The UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the US signed a telecoms pact in October which promises more collaboration on market issues. We spoke to law firm Linklaters about what it might involve.

The Global Coalition on Telecommunications (GCOT) purports to be about synching up how the five countries approach telecoms. The scope of corporation includes information sharing, joint R&D, funding alignment, the development of standards, skills, supply chain diversification, security, and 6G, so says the release.

Supply chain diversification can be read as Open RAN, which many governments are already vocal about fostering unilaterally. And while the announcement didn’t mention China by name, that country is consistently the main focus when it comes to conversations about telecoms security in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

At the moment the GCOT has just announced a statement of intention to collaborate more, the question is whether the fruits of this synch up end up being a series of joint statements on these issues mirroring or replacing those individual government departments put out already, or something with more teeth.

We spoke to Julian Cunningham-Day, a TMT partner at law firm Linklaters who had some thoughts on what deeper collaboration between member countries on the hot potatoes of the telecoms industry issues might look like.

How would you sum up the mission statement of the GCOT?

It talks in fairly neutral terms about supply chain diversification, about security in networks, education standards, 6G is a particular focus, and all the rest. So it’s got a nice broad remit there, and I think it’s useful to unpack what sits behind those main pillars of the mission statement.

This came about, potentially, primarily in the last mile of the mobile access space in terms of where there’s particular focus on concentration of the supply chain, obviously with the removal of one player in a lot of markets, that then concentrated down to one or two potential players.

And I think that really made people sit up and think hang on a minute, this isn’t the most competitively vibrant area of our business if we’re a telecoms company. We should try to do something about that. But obviously, that’s been the situation for a long time. And it takes quite a long time to build capability to compete with that.

And one of the reasons for getting this collaboration together is to create economies of scale, both in terms of demand into the industry so it’s aligned between a number of countries, potentially in a different direction from where it’s been before, and also along with the other pillars… creating that foundation of industry expertise within universities and industry to actually start creating competitors.

And a lot of that is coming out of this Open RAN concept, which you will have heard a lot about already. The idea was there’s quite a lot of stickiness around the end-to-end proposition from some of the historic heritage providers. And if we can enforce some level of disaggregation of that supply chain, so you have smaller components, which are through industry standards required to be interoperable using open standards, then you’ve got the possibility for other players to start coming in and nibbling bits of the market and creating that more vibrant market.

And potentially, we can’t get beyond the important geopolitical issues here, [there is] quite a lot of appetite from the people who are already in GCOT to move the centre of gravity into some new markets which are a bit closer to home for them, so they have some local players that perhaps give them a bit more comfort in terms of assurances around cybersecurity, and intents and all the rest.

There have been an awful lot of trials, pots of money and experiments trying to encourage innovation in the Open RAN space, though it’s sometimes hard to track their progress once they’ve been announced. Is the GCOT likely to provide a bit more heft by having all these countries work in unison?

We’re not talking enormous sums of money here, as you can see, and you’ve got the ORAN Alliance since 2018 or something, which is huge on the industry side, and that includes China and all these other places as well. So that’s the global thing, which has obviously got a lot of industry weight behind it already, which is very influential. This, as you say, brings a component of coordination between governmental organisations, which I think is a new thing and it’s useful.

It’s not got the EU in there. And there are a variety of reasons for that. There is a lack of complete consistency over approach to the different vendors in the market at the moment, which makes it quite hard to get a single approach happen. Also, possibly a tiny Brexit dividend here where we can be a bit more nimble and go off and do things without having the consensus requirements of 27 other people around the table, which would make things inevitably a lot slower.

So that does lead you to have a smaller pool of states to work with. Obviously, we haven’t got all the Five Eyes there either at the moment, I think New Zealand is possibly a bit late to the party. But there is that statement [saying] we’re looking forward to inviting other partners into the into the fold as well. So we’ll see, I think it’s a question of whether we’ve got to some kind of inflection point where there is more appetite for Open RAN than there was, there’s more focus on diversification, and there’s obviously a huge focus on cybersecurity as well.

Is there enough of all of that to mean that this is really going to make meaningful progress? I can’t say at the moment. There are many other burning platforms around at the moment and you’ll also see in this statement as well we’ve got £250 million piling into AI, £70 million over here… it’s obviously important, but there’s an awful lot of AI noise everywhere at the moment. What does that do? Obviously, that puts huge pressure within these mobile networks, which you’re trying to develop as well. So indirectly, that will force this conversation to be more acute, quite soon.

But it’s an interesting choice to talk about all these things, which are going to put extra strain on the system and then say, but we’re going to put a small amount of money into the RAN bit itself. All initiatives are greatly appreciated in the space, but it’s a small number of countries. It has got the US in there, which is helpful and obviously the US is looking to be to have more champions in the space – you’ve got Mavenir and other companies, which would be very interested in this as a way of building its profile as a competitor to some of those other players.

You mentioned Europe isn’t involved. If the whole idea is you’ve got to have global standards, and two of the three big RAN equipment makers, the two that are allowed in the West, are both in Europe, what’s the value of going off and doing anything in the space without them? Do you risk making a schism because if the EU ends up coming at these problems in a different way?

There’s a trade-off between trying to do some things quickly and trying to bring everybody with you. You’ve got that wider church within Open RAN on the industry side. Ideally, you do something with everybody but again, as we’re seeing on the on the AI side, there’s a lot of different people racing to set some global standards all at the same time. And you wait around to get global consensus and you’ve missed the bus and the whole thing’s finished. So I think there is at least a theory that there’s some first mover advantage in terms of governmental direction and standards setting. I just question whether they they’re going to get enough traction from enough jurisdictions to make that really worth their while.

We’re just going to have to see but I agree with you, I think potentially because some of the European jurisdictions have national champions in this space as well, that makes it a little bit more of a vexed conversation for them, which might suggest it would take a while to get to a European consensus on this as well. Which is maybe why they thought let’s just crack on. And if we can get Europe on board later once we’ve done something, then then we’ll see.

Ericsson and Nokia have both ramped up their public support of Open RAN, but it does seem complicated. If what you’re trying to do is get away from operators buying all their kit from one or the other, and they both instead sit within a wider ecosystem, buying it all from one firm has still got to be simpler than buying it piecemeal, regardless of the benefits that might bring to an ecosystem…

They’re in Open Ran and they’re in a lot of the parties already, so trying to remove them from it and just start afresh… I don’t know. Then do you not have enough of a springboard into the implementations without them? I just think it’s impossible to get this quite right. I think they probably need to be participating in various international initiatives for it to get off the ground to be honest… I think you’ve got to keep your enemies close, some might say as well there, just to make it work. But I’m sure they’ll do their best to make sure this doesn’t affect their market share too much. So it’s a difficult dance to have.

In terms of security, what and who has the GCOT been set up to defend against?

They try to keep the messaging fairly neutral, as you can imagine, around this. It’s threats in general to all of our industries through attacks on telecommunications infrastructure, and to certain extent that makes sense. There’s another trade off here…  coordinating activities in order to create diversification is good for business and potentially creates less vulnerabilities than if everybody’s on the same kit, they get hacked, and you hack everything. But at the same time, if you’re all working to develop a whole bunch of open standards, again, you’re creating a common platform, which can be hacked.

One of the key, fairly obvious benefits of this is you’re getting a lot of states with a very laser focus on cybersecurity who were piling in early to help develop a standard. So it’s a kind of what we call privacy by Design or security by design, that’s just been introduced as a foundational principle for whatever they build. So that’s got to mean it’s, it’s better from the ground up, and that discipline is imposed on everybody within the consortium, whatever you want to call it.

So I can see the benefit, but whether it will introduce its own vulnerabilities through this coordination, I think it’s a trade-off worth taking. Because at the end of the day, the standards will be higher, and there’ll be more protection for everyone. Again, we’re at foothills of what this is all going to do, there’s not much detail there yet for us to really get our teeth into.

Do you get the sense that there is something more tangible an international organisation like this can do beyond making a statements about telecoms security?

Having governments emphasising the potential for coordinating R&D across different countries creates potential for greater efficiency and faster progress with the different universities talking to each other, potentially getting funding to create these bridges. Then there is something potentially there if there is support behind the words. Coming up to elections we want to see some tangible commitments there, because a bit of money is nice, but it’s maintaining that emphasis and focus. And you need people who are going to drive results. So forcing academic leaders together, forcing R&D functions within business together as well, I think it’s got potential. I think it’s a good idea. So again, we’ll just have to see if there’s the political will to sit behind the initial fanfare.

Another tenant of the GCOT’s remit is stated as 6G, which doesn’t really exist yet. Does that just seem like a kind of statement of future intention?

I’m not sure all the governments that have been involved in 5G rollouts have fully anticipated the step change in terms of the level of infrastructure density, the capital investment required, the coordination of different stakeholders within society and everything else to get there. The coordination between different industry players for the shared infrastructure and everything else, which hopefully get more of in the future.

So I think anything which forces governments to think okay, this was hard. [For the] next iteration of that, how can we get best practice from different markets to make that less painful and basically enable the telecoms operators to find a smoother path through that. They’ve got a huge data demand on them, they’re trying to manage the existing networks and put all this out there because everybody wants it the same time… if there are ways to build it well in one jurisdiction as a template, or across multiple jurisdictions as a template which has been thought through and looked at from different angles, you might create some efficiency and some best practice.

That’s what Europe is meant to do as well, so it would be good to get those 27 other different market perspectives into this conversation because there are a lot of them kicking 5G around at the moment with varying degrees of success. I think that directionally it’s a good idea, it’s just a question of how much time people put into it in terms of getting the most out of everything.

 

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About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins Telecoms.com on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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