The UK is on its “last chance” to save its dying telecoms research industry according to a senior Samsung Research executive, who said there is a risk Samsung could move its R&D team without increased government funding.
Howard Benn, VP of communications research at the Samsung R&D Institute in Staines, pleaded with the UK government to fund telecoms industry research “properly”, and “invest in 6G research now”.
“This is probably our last chance to save the remnants of what was once a thriving industry. So let's do it now before it's too late,” said Benn, speaking at the UK5G Showcase in Birmingham last week.
“Don't faff around with complicated competitions – we're a small and decreasing number of technologists here in the UK, just ask [us] to join together.
“Don't just give us 40% funding. [The] Innovate UK funding model in the UK makes it extremely difficult for large industry players,” he added, saying as far as he knew, Samsung was now the only large commercial player working on 6G research in the UK.
He also criticised the government’s lack of commitment to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme: “Promises from the Treasury and UKRI are helpful, but ... consortium partners in Europe are losing confidence in the promises being made. So bids into [the EU Smart Networks and Services Joint Undertaking] are getting increasingly hard.”
Benn noted Finland and Germany had committed to “major government-funded programmes, in addition to the EU-funded programmes” and said France and Spain were expected to announce “substantial funding” for 6G research soon.
Risk Samsung R&D may leave UK
“If we are not careful, all that will happen is that Samsung Research will move the 250 jobs that we have, in Staines, in Cambridge, on our very advanced research, to another European country. It's as simple as that,” he added.
In an email to The Stack, Benn said he wanted to see more funding for 6G research areas the UK already has expertise in, such as gallium nitride power amplifiers, which are being produced by the Compound Semiconductor Cluster in Wales, or AI research for improved mobile performance and power consumption.
Despite his impassioned comments at the UK5G event, Benn told The Stack: “In the areas that the UK already have expertise I am very hopeful we can develop and grow these areas. But it will need money,” adding he understood the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has an allocation from the spending review.
He also said the new funding model in Germany, where local clusters combine industry and academic research teams will be interesting to observe as it develops. But he said the Horizon 2020 EU funding model, which brought together industry, research institutes and universities, where participants received 100% funding, was “more relevant”.
Other figures in the UK’s telecommunications research sector broadly welcomed Benn’s comments.
Rahim Tafazolli, regius professor of electronic engineering at Surrey University, director of the university's 5G/6G Innovation Centre, and one of the most senior figures in communications research in the UK, told The Stack he supported Benn’s argument.
“What we need to do in UK is to make sure that the whole cycle of doing fundamental research – we take it to innovation, we test it, and then we take it into products. I think that the last two steps are missing,” he said, noting that the UK was world-leading when it comes to academic research into communications.
'Research is risky'
“Research is risky… Industry is conservative about spending money on research. So for this, the risk needs to be minimised by co-investment… The risk should be minimised by cooperation and teamwork from different industry, different players.”
Tafazolli, who sits on the expert panel for the UK Spectrum Policy Forum (SPF), noted that at times like this, when operators have spent considerable sums on rolling out 5G infrastructure, funding 6G research becomes a low priority.
“We can't wait until the industry makes money out of 5G, and then we start research – we need to do this one in parallel. That's why at Surrey, we initiated the 6G Innovation Centre in 2020,” he said.
Benn noted one of the key factors in the decline of telecoms industry research was the 3G spectrum auctions in 2000, which “took a massive amount of money out of the mobile ecosystem”.
(The UK's auction for 3G spectrum allocations raised £22.5bn in 2000, far more than expected - but the high cost crippled the winners' ability to roll out 3G networks. The UK's 5G auctions in 2018 and 2021 raised just £2.71bn in total.)
“This slowed down the infrastructure roll outs for 3G, and a similar pattern happened in 4G. The direct impact was felt by most the manufacturers who had a presence in the UK. Motorola moved production out of Swindon to China. The indirect impact was a slow withdrawal of R&D by all the major player[s].”
Mark Beach, professor of radio systems engineering at the University of Bristol, who also sits on the UK SPF panel, told The Stack: “There is… a void and a need to have longer applied 6G projects as well as ensure that [Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council] calls are aligned with the need for underpinning 6G enabling technology, with clear guidance to applicants and peer reviewers.
Budgets don't stretch to 6G research
“In addition, the EPSRC ICT budget is stretched over so many topics, so 6G doesn’t get much of a look in. I have a painful experience of both successful and unsuccessful applications for both 6G like wireless research and equipment requests. Government funding should be specifically targeted, including longer term research projects.”
Mark Barrett, chief commercial officer at Blu Wireless, a UK-based telecoms equipment producer, told The Stack he “fully endorsed” Benn’s comments: “The funding needed to develop such 5G/6G semiconductor technology is significant – witness the EU’s initiative to turbo charge investment in EU semiconductor capacity.
“Clearly post-Brexit UK is at a major disadvantage in not being able to exploit these at-scale investments to further R&D in 5G, 6G and the underpinning semiconductor technology. Whilst the funding from DCMS on 5G is welcome, the amounts of money available are orders of magnitude lower than needed to make a real impact in making UK a leader in these markets – as Howard clearly outlines,” he added.
Tafazolli said he believed telecoms industry-led 6G research would receive more funding, as telecoms is increasingly seen as critical infrastructure: “We want to know what is inside the boxes. We want to know what is inside the system. And that's why times have changed – the world order has changed and is changing.
“I think the government and the funding organisations are listening. And it hasn't happened yet, but it is on the agenda to do something about it… I think it will happen. I'm optimistic. But we should always mention it, so it doesn't fall off the agenda,” added Tafazolli.
DCMS was approached for comment, but was unable to provide a response at time of publication.