Huawei finds 5G heaven in Switzerland
A QUIET Huawei Technologies Co-led 5G revolution is unfolding at the heart of Europe – in the bucolic Swiss hamlet of Taenikon.
Far from US President Donald Trump’s campaign to stop the world from using the Chinese company’s technology, cows in this northern Swiss village – with its whitewashed cottages and manicured fields – wear Huawei’s 5G-connected neck-straps instead of traditional flat bells. And in the village’s Cistercian abbey, converted into a test farm, Switzerland’s second-biggest telecommunications operator, Sunrise Communications Group AG, and Huawei test the next-generation 5G wireless network.
“You could call it a Fitbit for cows,” said Alexander Lehrmann, Sunrise’s chief of new business development and internet of things, referring to Fitbit Inc’s fitness device. “It allows farmers to get complete control and insight into their health conditions at any time and from any place.”
While countries in Europe are grappling with US claims that Huawei’s gear could open them up to Chinese spying, Switzerland is quietly building a network with the company. Flying under the radar, the Swiss have become world leaders in the rollout of 5G technology with the early sprouting of private and public networks. Entities from the Zurich airport, the national mail service and railways to food giant Nestle SA and Zurich Insurance Group AG either have or envisage private networks with Sunrise, whose exclusive supplier is Huawei.
“The Swiss government has done a very neutral and objective evaluation of Huawei and they have come to the conclusion that there is no significant other risks included in the technology and in Huawei as a company,” Sunrise chief executive officer Andre Krause said in an interview. “(But) if the reputation of Huawei is continuously under pressure, that could also have an impact on us at some stage.”
The stakes are high as networks move toward the new-generation technology that promises faster connections, enabling uses such as autonomous vehicles, remote surgery and the transfer of data over a network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.
For now, much of what’s happening with Huawei in Switzerland is the industrial use of 5G, or private networks, that draw less attention. But Switzerland is also the first country in Europe to start using a commercial 5G network for individuals in a limited way, amid opposition from environmental and health activists fighting antenna emissions.
The US has been frustrated by Europe’s refusal to accede to Trump’s demands to keep Chinese tech companies out of advanced 5G networks. The UK, France, and Germany are all looking to keep the door open to the Chinese telecom giant in some way, snubbing the US view that Huawei could be a security risk. Italy, Croatia and Hungary, like Switzerland, have signed partnerships with Huawei.
The Chinese company in February touted as many as 47 commercial contracts for 5G in Europe, more than in Asia. It claims to have 91 contracts, but did not respond to queries seeking details.
Still, the European Union may force member states to eventually change some of the deals after the bloc published a series of security recommendations in its “5G toolbox” that could keep non-European gear makers out of the network core, towers and towers bases.
Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, doesn’t face those constraints. Swiss insurers and pharmaceutical companies are testing Huawei’s 5G networks. Huawei has also built a partnership with the Swiss engineering company ABB Ltd, which is seeking to offer industrial partners competitive 5G platforms.
Sunrise’s Lehrmann said banks haven’t yet signed up. He said Sunrise is present in Swiss hospitals, where “the use case is what can you do in order to improve the patient experience by connecting data”.
Swisscom, the former monopoly is also testing the industrial technology but won’t disclose its gear maker. Salt, the Iliad SA-owned Swiss operator, is working with Nokia.
“Radio Network Antennas (the technical name for private networks) are inside offices, factory, hospitals, whatever it is,” Duncan Stewart, Deloitte’s director of research in telecommunications, told reporters in Paris Feb 4. “The machinery in your factory, the robots, the sensors, the cameras, the turbines, all these IoT devices, will only work on the private 5G networks.”
Stewart forecast that by 2030 almost all companies with more than 10,000 employees may have private 5G networks.
Some other European countries are also testing private networks.
The Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest, has tested the technology starting 2018 with the national telecom operator KPN in partnership with Huawei, according to KPN’s website. Germany has prioritised the expansion of its industrial 5G application too, allowing companies to apply for private networks with gear makers, without necessarily going through a telecom operator. Companies including Bosh in partnership with Nokia, Siemens with Qualcomm Inc. and Volkswagen are building such networks.
To Sunrise’s Lehrmann, the situation is simple.
Customers “are looking at 5G as a technology that allows them to drive new uses and new business cases”, he said.
On the test farm in Taenikon, meanwhile, cows eat, sleep and stroll under surveillance cameras. Their milk production, health and other data are transmitted at speeds about 100 times faster than current networks and processed in real-time. The test is meant to see how remote farms can function, information Sunrise and Huawei can use for other applications to boost factory output, enable big data usage in the finance sector or take health care in hospitals to a newer level.
“The Swiss population and economy depend on high-performance mobile communications,” Sunrise’s chief administrative officer Marcel Huber said on his LinkedIn account in February. – Bloomberg
Tech boss who lost more than a billion
HOW would you feel if you lost more than £1.4bn (K6.3bn) almost overnight?
That was the situation faced by Andrew Rickman back at the end of 2000, when the dotcom bubble spectacularly burst, sending shares in his company Bookham Technology plummeting.
“It was like a nuclear winter,” he says looking back.
Andrew had set up Bookham in 1988 in the kitchen of his home in Wiltshire, when he was 28. It grew to become one of the world’s leading providers of optical components for the telecommunication and computer industries. In very simple terms, its technology allowed data to be transferred very quickly using lasers and glass fibres.
By the late 1990s its sales were booming as more and more homes and businesses were being connected to the internet, and mobile phone networks were being rolled out.
The good times were, well, so good, that after Bookham floated on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in April 2000, within two months it had joined the FTSE 100 index. This is the list of the 100 firms on the exchange with the largest market capitalisation – the combined value of all their shares.
Such was the surge of Bookham’s share price that Andrew, who owned the largest stake in the business, became the UK’s first technology billionaire. This sent the UK’s tabloid newspapers into a frenzy, and the softly spoken, modest 40-year-old was suddenly a reluctant celebrity.
Journalists excitedly told their readers that he was richer than Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Paul McCartney combined. Looking back, he says he was “embarrassed” by all the coverage.
At the peak of Bookham’s share price in the summer of 2000, Andrew was worth more than £1.5bn. Then the dotcom bubble burst, and before the end of the year Bookham’s share price – and Andrew’s wealth – had collapsed.
This thrust him back into the papers, which now gleefully reported his downfall.
“I didn’t think particularly much about all the press coverage,” says Andrew, now 59. “The money wasn’t an issue, because it was only on paper. Being the first dotcom billionaire wasn’t a reality to me.
“The thing that was difficult to deal with, as a human being, was the massive change of circumstances for the company and our technology. It was an emotionally difficult thing to handle for many different reasons.”
The big problem for Bookham was that its cutting-edge optical equipment was expensive. And after the dotcom bubble burst, its customers – the firms building all the new networks – switched to using cheaper, simpler technology instead.
But before you feel sorry for Andrew, he still had some £50m in his bank account, and he was able to slowly build Bookham back up again. This involved delisting from the LSE, and moving the company to Silicon Valley to get around the then high price of sterling, and be closer to key customers.
Andrew eventually left the business in 2004, to start a new career as a technology investor. Then in 2013 he started his latest business – Rockley Photonics.
Based in Oxford, with a 150-strong workforce, it designs a product called silicon photonic chips. These are like standard microchips, but with one key difference – they beam light around the chip instead of sending an electronic current.
Although the photonic chip industry is still in its infancy, the advantage is said to be that they can process a lot more data, more quickly. Photonic chips are now increasingly being used in everything from data centres to sensor systems on autonomous cars, and in the latest mobile phones.
Andrew says that Rockley now has an annual turnover in the “tens of millions”, but with the potential of increasing this to billions.
Veteran electronics journalist Peter Clarke says that Andrew “is one of a group of UK engineering visionaries that also carry the entrepreneurial gene”.
“Rickman is smart in an intense, academic way, and a good advert for the UK higher education system.” (He was educated at Imperial College in London, and the University of Surrey.)
Looking back on the dotcom bust, does Andrew think he should have predicted it?
“Hindsight is a great thing,” he says. “I don’t think many people were prepared for that sort of boom and bust, they never seem to be.
“The span of time between boom and bust tends to be sufficient for the collective knowledge to have gone into retirement. But we were one of very, very, very few firms in our area that survived.
“One thing I did learn at that time was to have an eye to a more analytical view of the world around us. So from that point on I’ve always had what I would describe as an analysis team… They sit there and they basically analyse the environment the whole time, so, if you like, they become a sensitive seismic monitor.
“And I’m not just looking for the disasters that are coming, I’m looking for the things that are going to explode (in a good way).” –BBC