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We need new voices, technology, and intellectual property to enter the telecoms sector as fast as possible

We need new voices, technology, and intellectual property to enter the telecoms sector as fast as possible

 

UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN) consortium partner, University of Bristol working with SETsquared, is continuing support for early-stage, deep tech companies with the new Transforming Telecoms programme. This fully-funded, blended learning programme contains two strands: Commercialisation Through Partnership and Investment Support – to help more companies enter the telecoms market.

 We caught up with the programme’s expert trainer, Chris Pett, to get an overview of the sector and how the new training can help start-ups form those all-important relationships needed to commercialise in a sector that is complex but ripe with opportunities.

 How is the telecoms industry currently evolving?

The telecoms industry has experienced a period of integration and consolidation over the last twenty years, following its incredible expansion and diversification in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The picture today is of an industry ready for another evolution. You’ve got new technologies that are possible and commercially viable now that weren’t possible to implement even a few years ago. Things like generative artificial intelligence, accessibility of low earth orbit non-terrestrial network technology, and the possibility to secure networks in a way that wasn’t possible before. Significantly, these new technologies are coming in from outside the telecoms sector. Meaning external factors are influencing and forcing the industry to evolve. At the same time, there are forces from within the sector itself. There’s the maturity and development of new standards and capabilities in core networks, for example, 5G and 6G technology implementation, and the development of photonics and fibre optic network switching, which means the industry is also evolving from within.

For these reasons, the external forces, new technology, new requirements, and internal technology development, the telecoms industry is in a position where incumbents, the large corporations that have traditionally dominated the sector for the better part of a generation, have no option but to change and evolve. They can’t sit in the positions they built for themselves anymore.

When people talk about the telecoms industry, it becomes increasingly difficult to pin it down. Whereas 20/30 years ago, it was easy to say what it was – large, vertically integrated, fixed line, telecommunications operators, and wireless operators, and that was it. Now, telecoms is an enabling factor in many other vertically integrated sectors like manufacturing, smart mobility, creative technology, and financial services. Yet, at the same time, it is also an industry of its own. We hear new terminologies, like connectivity, future telecoms, and future networks, to get around these confusing aspects. We’ve got a sea change in the industry right now. For somebody entering the sector in 2024, it will be completely unrecognisable from where it is today by the time they’re halfway through their career.

What are the technologies that will provide the solutions of the future?

There are some very strong challenges emerging from the sector. Most importantly the significant carbon impact of running a global telecommunications infrastructure. BT pays 1% of the UK’s electricity bill. The current configuration of networks makes them very carbon-intensive to operate. One reason for this is that switching technology hasn’t changed until recently and hasn’t kept pace with new ways of doing things. Switches and servers run very hot; they require a lot of energy to operate, and that’s something which can be changed. There’s a massive effort to decarbonise the telecoms sector by making energy-efficient hardware and using software to intelligently manage networks in a way that massively reduces the carbon impacts of the energy consumption of those networks. For instance, switching to fibre optic lines – which consume zero energy when not in use – unlike traditional copper networks. But also in terms of operating wireless networks which can be done much more efficiently than before. This is just one small element of telecoms where solutions to meet current challenges haven’t yet been fully developed and implemented

Another area experiencing significant growth is private networks. Previously, private cellular networks were quite unusual. If you look at the factory of the future or the sports stadium of the future, they need to operate private networks configured to very precise requirements in a way that is now possible. Each deployment opportunity also requires a lot of integration of new types of technology working perfectly together. You can create a smart factory where every single object in a supply chain is automatically tracked and traced, and the factory can manage itself in an incredibly detailed way, which is only possible through a very complex mixture of wireless and fixed networking. Take sports and the management of stadiums in terms of access for fans, ticketing, and broadcast and entertainment. These kinds of private network opportunities are significant. That means there is a whole new range of telecoms providers that have a market opportunity where they can add as much value as the incumbent big operators traditionally have had. These new challenges and opportunities are opening up space for new entrants into the market in a really exciting way.

How can early-stage deep tech companies find a route into telecoms?

In a word, it’s all about partnerships. You can’t market a genuinely disruptive technology based on foundational intellectual property alone.

You’ve got two challenges to overcome. One is entrenched commercial interests and existing technology stacks within the sector, which are very difficult and unwilling to move aside for a new technology that wants to enter. The second is speed to market. Deep technology takes a long time to develop at the best of times, but on top of that, you’ve got this very important but sometimes very frustrating regulatory infrastructure that controls spectrum access to particular networks and follows very precise standards that all potential participants in telecoms infrastructure accept. These standards take a long time to develop and change and access to these networks is difficult to gain. So deep tech companies just can’t do it on their own. From day one, they must build partnerships as assiduously as they build technology. One of the key issues for companies is that it’s difficult to know who you need your friends to be and how you can play nicely in an ecosystem which by definition you want to disrupt.  Identifying potential collaborators and creating those partnership relationships is key.

Can you describe the support that’s available through UKTIN?

UKTIN plays a critical role in engaging and convening all subsystems within telecoms. People have engaged with it because they recognise that their work must change. They recognise that new blood must enter the market, both in terms of new types of individuals with different skill sets and perspectives and new types of technology that wouldn’t traditionally be seen as telecoms technology but which now have a very needed place in the whole stack of technology that’s going to make the industry work.

If an industry embarks on a change agenda, as it is now, it must do that together, in a collaborative way.

The UK telecoms sector competes against many other countries with increasingly well-developed networks. It’s a very competitive world, and we don’t have the luxury of developing at our own pace.

UKTIN exists to create those points of connection and broker the relationships which are difficult to find. Even if you know the companies you want to interface and interact with, how do you know which individuals are tasked with engaging with companies like yours? Finding the people and common ground for collaboration is difficult. These interactions could be one-to-one with specific partners or one-to-many, where a consortium of organisations with mutual research and development interests can come together around a particular theme and then develop a collective solution that can advance the diversification of telecoms infrastructure in some meaningful way.

Who is the commercialisation and investment support for?

We’re targeting those companies that are needed by the UK telecoms sector that don’t currently have a place at the table. Deep technology start-ups may not be traditionally seen as ‘telecoms’ but are bringing genuine innovation into the sector. For example, we’ve already supported companies in blockchain, cybersecurity, advanced photonics, artificial intelligence, and core network companies, developing hardware and software specifically for network operations. These companies are disruptive, new, and going through this really risky phase in their development. If they don’t find their way into the sector successfully, it’s a big problem for everybody because we need diversification. We need new voices, experiences, perspectives, technology, and intellectual property to enter the sector as fast as possible.

This UKTIN support, delivered by Bristol Innovations at the University of Bristol, is the gateway for deep tech start-ups to find a role in the sector and create the necessary partnerships and investor relationships.

By and large, telecoms is a very well-capitalised industry with large incumbent companies and a funded research agenda by shareholder value. But when it comes to start-ups, they can’t succeed without access to capital. UKTIN support enables companies to figure out how to develop an investment strategy that matches their innovation strategy and how they can raise the right type of capital at the right time. As well as how to access other types of income, like grant funding, in a way that supports their development safely through all those risky stages towards getting to market. We’re here for the deep tech start-ups. Typically, they will have already started raising some investment, but they won’t yet have achieved the scale where they can do it independently. They won’t have reached, for example, the Series B stage in their investment journey, but they won’t be a brand-new idea either.

Why would you recommend that companies engage with the UKTIN training?

It’s simply the fastest, most efficient way to create the partnership opportunities you need to ultimately succeed commercially. You need the customer in the loop, and you need a narrative that plays to potential proof of concept and pilot partners, to potential investors, to potential university-based research and development teams, all of which you need to leverage to get your products to market. You can try to do that on your own or through local or regional connections you might have built. But if you want to operate nationally and meet everybody as fast as possible, there is no other game in town.

That’s exactly why UKTIN has been funded and resourced. We have people who are actively looking to meet and engage with you. We have signposted opportunities in digital technology, compound semiconductors, satellite applications, and many others across the sector. We can help you consolidate potential partners you already know about but also investigate and explore opportunities you might not be aware or even have thought of. Trying to do all that on your own is going to take you too long and cost you too much time and money, so take this opportunity to engage with our willing and open ecosystem of potential partners and collaborators.

How should early-stage companies approach the telecoms market?

One significant stage at a time. Rather than trying to do it all in one great leap, structure development in milestones, get the right support and funding to move from one milestone to the next, and use the UKTIN support to determine what those milestones need to be.

We’re going to help people break it down into simple stages and then figure out the most efficient and safest way to move from one stage to the next. That’s the most effective way to gain access to the market.

One of the reasons the telecoms sector can seem difficult to join or engage with is because it looks like a closed shop or a well-integrated, consolidated market full of companies that will buy from each other. People don’t realise they’re always waiting for new bits of technology. Our role is around demystification, simple introductions, and signposting. There are no stupid questions and no wrong technologies for the sector. But sometimes, it can feel that way if you don’t know who to ask or how to present your opportunity. That’s why we’re here to help.

Find out more about the support on offer 

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