Outlook 2021: Future telecom networks

4 mins read

How the CSA Catapult is helping UK businesses to address the market fro future telecom networks.

The Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult has established an enviable record of helping companies translate research into commercial products. From a standing start in 2018, we have initiated over £60m worth of projects, mostly helping tier 1 automotive companies transition from internal combustion engines to battery-electric propulsion. These projects address the innovation challenges of bringing new products to market while creating entire supply chains using UK compound semiconductors.

Following this early success, we now see a greater opportunity to help UK companies address the market for future telecom networks, catalysing industry to develop and deploy critical parts of telecoms infrastructure.

The changing digital world

The modern world is increasingly dependent on digital services, supporting online working, financial transactions, e-commerce, logistics and tele-health. During the COVID lockdown, for example, data traffic increased by 120% in UK commuter towns, while London saw a drop of 60%. New services, such as virtual reality, will transform future society, creating new markets and industries, and unleashing the potential of global citizens. Digital connectivity brings communities closer together while reducing travel and environmental impact.

Digital services are reliant on telecom networks that link smartphones with office computers, data servers and cloud computing. As new services are developed, the demand for network capacity is forecast to grow by around 300% over the next 5 years. These services will play an increasingly important role in delivering economic growth, with financial transactions contributing £132bn to the UK economy in 2018 alone. Ubiquitous network access has the potential to distribute wealth creation more widely, helping to relieve pressure on existing economic hotspots.

To fully benefit from these services, and secure economic prosperity, the UK must remain at the forefront of telecom technology.

Building resilience

Telecom networks represent critical national infrastructure. The recent McKinsey report titled ‘Risk, resilience and rebalancing global value chains’ highlights the risks to telecom networks from malicious attacks and macro-political shifts. Mitigating these risks is upper-most in the minds of governments with new initiatives to develop supply chains based more on resilience than cost alone.

The recently announced Telecom Security Bill plans to mitigate risks by removing ‘high risk’ vendors from UK networks and diversifying the supply of telecom equipment. This bill is designed to strengthen supply chains, especially for mobile communication equipment.

There is a recognised lack of vendor diversity within the telecoms industry, which is considered by many economists to be a global market failure. Initiatives to address this market failure include the provision of open standards, such as Open-RAN, which specifies interoperability within the radio-access network (RAN). The move to open standards has the potential to open the market to new entrants. When combined with the Telecom Security Bill, open standards provide a once in a generation opportunity for UK companies to deploy an increasing proportion of future network infrastructure.

Key technologies

Delivering digital services of the future requires a step change in network performance, which can only be delivered through innovation, investment in new technologies, and the application of compound semiconductors. To be fully resilient, the UK needs access to these technologies, and the supply chains on which they rely. The CSA Catapult sees a clear opportunity to help innovative companies develop key technologies for future networks while at the same time securing access to supply chains.

Mobile connectivity, from 5G and beyond, requires innovative technologies to deliver a step change in performance at the radio edge. While 3G and 4G networks used macro cell base stations, next generation mobile connectivity will combine macro cell and small cell base stations with beam steering techniques and highly efficient radio frequency transceivers – this will deliver higher bandwidth, reduced latency and optimal efficiency. UK companies developing these techniques use compound semiconductors, such as gallium nitride (GaN).

Increasing levels of data traffic at the radio edge will place additional strain on backhaul connections, with innovations required in millimetre wave and optical communications to deliver the necessary bandwidth. The UK has several companies developing RF and optical transceivers using compound semiconductors to meet these requirements.

Satellite communications will deliver services where base stations are not ideal, such as rural areas or to autonomous vehicles. Here, there is an opportunity for a constellation of low earth orbit cube satellites, such as OneWeb, which communicate using compound semiconductor chips.

Next generation encryption will combine software algorithms with digital chip encoding and quantum security, which is being developed by UK academics using compound semiconductors.

While data centres currently consume around 1% of the world’s energy resources, highly efficient compound semiconductors will minimise energy consumption as data centres expand with the provision of new online services.

Building on a strong legacy

As we look to the future, the UK is in a strong position to develop key technologies for future telecom networks, with clusters of companies working at the leading edge:

  • In North East England, a cluster of companies are developing world-leading optical, radio frequency and satellite communication technologies, complementing similar activity in Cambridge. These technologies are essential to future mobile networks.
  • The Scottish photonics cluster is world-renowned. In addition Scotland, along with Surrey, hosts a dynamic industry that designs and manufactures cube satellites – capable of providing broadband coverage to rural areas and autonomous vehicles.
  • The Western Gateway, encompassing Bath, Bristol and Cardiff, uniquely combines expertise in compound semiconductors, cybersecurity, digital chip design, network architectures and small cell base stations.
  • Northern Ireland is home to world-leading research and manufacture of efficient data centre technology.
  • A cluster of companies around Torbay develops the optical components required for future high-speed optical networks.

Seizing the opportunity

High performance telecom networks are required to safeguard future digital services, and the associated prosperity. Developing these networks requires a combination of innovation and access to secure supply chains. Building on previous success, the CSA Catapult sees a great opportunity for UK companies to develop and deploy a larger proportion of critical telecoms infrastructure.

Based in South Wales, the CSA Catapult is a non-profit research and technology organisation. Our strategy is to accelerate the development of products using compound semiconductors, helping to grow UK industry while building long-lasting supply chains.

The Catapult’s Innovation Centre features a design studio and highly specified laboratories, with dedicated engineers to help companies accelerate new products to market. Our laboratories are equipped with specialist optical and radio frequency equipment to help companies develop systems for radio edge, backhaul and satellite communications. As part of the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, called CS Connected, the CSA Catapult is developing sovereign sources of critical semiconductor materials, such as silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN), to support future telecom networks.

Author details: Dr Andy G Sellars, Strategy Director, Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult