The technical head of Orange's 5G program has confirmed that China's ZTE recently landed a 5G contract with the French operator's Spanish subsidiary, which is also using Ericsson and Huawei as network partners.
Arnaud Vamparys, Orange's senior vice president of radio networks and "5G champion," lauded the technology developed by the Chinese vendor, which is viewed as a security threat by the US government and some European officials because of its ties to the Chinese state.
"It has very good technology and quality, even in [5G] standalone mode, with very good results," Vamparys told Light Reading. "It is one of our main vendors."
An Orange spokesperson subsequently provided further confirmation that ZTE was introduced as a network partner in 2019. "Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE are the official providers of the network infrastructure in Spain. ZTE has been added as a provider last year."
While Orange did not provide further details, its confirmation follows a report last September by Spanish newspaper Expansion that said the Chinese company had been hired to build 5G networks in the cities of Bilbao, San Sebastián, Vitoria, Logroño and Zaragoza, citing unnamed local sources.
According to Expansion's report, Ericsson had previously been responsible for about 60% of the Orange mobile network in Spain, with Huawei accounting for the remainder. The deal with ZTE has reportedly come at Ericsson's expense.
The deal is a rare Western European coup for ZTE and comes after it was recently banned from the UK market on security grounds. ZTE is also still recovering from US trade sanctions in 2018, when it was blocked from purchasing US components used in its devices and network products.
While Europe's service providers have grown heavily reliant on the much bigger Huawei, ZTE has played a more limited role in the region. Outside China, where it boasts a 35% share of the infrastructure market, critics say its low-cost equipment is more suited to emerging markets, and it is used by Orange in several of its African networks, according to Vamparys.
But his praise for ZTE's technology – including its products based on the newer, standalone version of 5G – could mitigate some of the concern that a vendor with a relatively small R&D budget would ever be able to match its bigger rivals on quality.
Although ZTE has recently increased its R&D budget, it spent just $1.3 billion in the first nine months of 2019. R&D expenses at Ericsson and Nokia last year were about $4 billion and $4.8 billion respectively, while Huawei claims to have spent as much as $18 billion.
ZTE this week claimed to have signed 46 commercial 5G deals worldwide, with Huawei boasting 91, Ericsson 81 and Nokia 67. It has also shipped around 200,000 5G basestations, according to a source at the company.
Orange now appears to have a much broader mix of network vendors than most other major European operators, and it believes this mix brings security. The rationale is that supplier diversity makes it less dependent on a particular vendor and therefore less exposed to any problems that vendor might face.
Across Europe, it has also avoided using any so-called "high-risk vendors" in the network "core," a sensitive part of the system that handles important functions and is often thought of as the network's brain.
Despite its use of Huawei and ZTE in various countries, security concerns have prompted Orange to guarantee it will not rely on Chinese vendors anywhere in France. Earlier this year, it awarded 5G contracts for its domestic market to Ericsson and Nokia.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading